Social worker eases life on cancer's front lines

Colorful, compassionate social worker helps patients, families deal with fears in the face of cancer
social worker Jennifer Denson and patient George Schindler
Jennifer Denson, a social worker at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, finds fulfillment in the process of connecting with and supporting individuals like George Schindler, a cancer patient from Puyallup. Photo by Dean Forbes

Jennifer Denson has spent much of her 21-year Center career working with bone-marrow transplant patients and knows transplantation is one of the biggest transitions a person can experience.

"I compare it to having a child because it changes your life completely and so permanently," she said. "People can read about it, watch the videos, but unless they go through it themselves, they have no idea what it's going to be like."

While Denson has never had cancer herself, her days are spent up close to the disease — listening to the concerns of patients and families and helping them navigate an uncertain, life-altering journey.

"During transplantation, people change so much — a dominant person in a marriage might suddenly become like a little child, while their partner has to step up and take charge. People who recover don't ever go back to what they were. It's a new normal. And sometimes it's an improvement, because people will focus more on the priorities, not worry so much about what color to paint the house," Denson said.

Great responsibility …

Denson is a social worker at the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance (SCCA), but her history with the Center goes back to 1985, when she joined the pediatric transplant group located at Swedish Hospital. In 1990, she joined the Center's outpatient group, then located on First Hill. After a stint as director of Patient and Family Services, Denson wanted to work more closely with patients and joined the outpatient autologous team, where she spent the next 10 years. There, she worked with bone-marrow transplant patients and their families and witnessed the strengths individuals draw on during their battles.

"I remember one woman who came up to Seattle from Alabama for a transplant," Denson said. "She was determined to live, but she was not going to leave anything to chance. Before she left home, she had already picked out the outfit she wanted to be buried in. It had angel wings, and she gave exact instructions about how they were to be displayed as she lay in her coffin. She had also instructed her husband that if things didn't work out, he was to marry her best friend." They didn't, and the husband married the best friend as directed, Denson said. "It may seem morbid, but it wasn't. She was just so engaged with the world around her. She had this way of thinking things through. And what a sense of humor!"

Among the aspects of her job Denson really enjoys are the opportunities to meet people from different cultures and countries. She remembers a patient from a Tlingit tribe in Alaska. "We require transplant patients to have a caregiver, and this man didn't know anyone in Seattle until, by chance, one day he met another man, an artist from his village in Alaska," she said. The artist was practically homeless, but he was able to share housing arranged for the patient by Debbie Fraley, the SCCA's director of housing, and Alaska Medicaid. "He turned out to have all the qualities one could hope for in a caregiver. He was dedicated, patient, solicitous," said Denson, who advocated for the caregiver and provided emotional support for the patient.

"Working with transplant patients is demanding, front-line duty," said Percy Randle, former director of pastoral care at the Center and a long-time friend of Denson. "Sure, you're a professional, but the things that happen in that unit — the successes and the failures — affect everybody, whether they admit it to themselves or not." Randle describes Denson as "a very special person. She is very comfortable dealing with people on a spiritual level, and that's a great asset. I admire her for taking care of herself so well emotionally. That's how she's been able to stay on the front lines for so long."

Denson attributes her longevity in this stressful profession to her ability to separate her personal life from her professional life. She's raised two children (a 26-year-old son and 23-year-old daughter) and finds time for activities she finds rejuvenating and grounding — like dancing, tai chi, fishing and playing basketball.

Last fall, Denson moved into general oncology where she deals with a greater range of issues. "On a typical day, I might get to work with one patient dealing with end-of-life issues and then with another who's at the beginning of the process — who might have just gotten the diagnosis and is in a bit of a state of shock," Denson said.

… and a privilege

Amelia Johnson, Denson's supervisor, said Denson has a knack for putting patients at ease. "Jennifer is accepting of all people and all behaviors and all differences. She's not judgmental," Johnson said. "Patients like Jennifer because she's colorful, inquisitive and animated. You either hear her laugh from somewhere nearby or you can catch a glimpse of one of her outfits. One patient described Jennifer as the person she would most like to go out and have a drink with after work."

Denson prides herself on her ability to connect with patients. "One of my strengths is that I can be present for people who are upset and dealing with uncertainties. I take people as I find them. I don't try to tell them how to feel," she said. It's a process Denson considers a great responsibility, but also a life-affirming privilege.

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