Call it nerve, guts or courage — Matthew Loscalzo, M.S.W., has got it. When he first started out as social worker in the late 1970s, few mental health professionals wanted to work with cancer patients. Social stigmas about the disease abounded.
Instead of avoiding patients with cancer, Loscalzo took the daring approach: He embraced and listened to them.
“I felt this was a field where I could make a major difference,” Loscalzo said. “There was so much ignorance and fear about cancer.”
Now Loscalzo has arrived at City of Hope to champion this conviction. Loscalzo serves as the new administrative director of the Sheri & Les Biller Patient and Family Resource Center, which offers a wide, growing range of supportive care services to help patients and their families and friends cope with the diagnosis and treatment of serious diseases.
Loscalzo witnessed the cancer experience firsthand as a young man in 1973, when he saw his mother die of the disease. Armed with a sense of passionate compassion, Loscalzo joined Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center several years later, and in 1981, became a founding member of one of the first palliative care teams in the country. Composed of an oncologist, a nurse practitioner and a social worker, the team monitored terminally ill patients with difficult problems, such as neurologic or psychiatric issues.
“We recognized the importance of addressing physical symptoms, supporting the family and providing coping skills and psychosocial and spiritual support,” he said.
Loscalzo provided grief counseling and bereavement assistance to patients and families, helped lead support groups for family members, and even used and taught hypnosis to assist patients, families and staff. The team published its innovative work widely in peer-reviewed journals.
He later moved to Johns Hopkins Oncology Center, where he led the Department of Oncology Social Work, co-directed the Center for Cancer Pain Research, and directed the Department of Patient & Family Services. He most recently worked at the Moores Cancer Center at the University of California, San Diego, where he was associate clinical professor of medicine in hematology-oncology, co-directed the institution’s palliative care program and led several initiatives to address palliative care and psychosocial needs.
City of Hope’s credo, in part, drew him north to his new position. “This mantra of protecting the soul — that’s what the Biller Resource Center is all about,” Loscalzo said. “For some people, it’s very upsetting to see others ill or upset and having intense feelings, so they avoid them, and that makes the person feel more isolated, vulnerable and exposed. But we want to be a sanctuary, a place where people can share these feelings, find answers and feel welcome.”
He brings a team approach and wants to create a culture of learning and sharing, while drawing upon staff members’ strengths. From psychologists to patient navigators, “everyone at the center is going to be working with — and for — patients,” he said. “Everyone will be a leader in their area.”
And every program will be stringently evaluated. “People have the right to know that our offerings are based on science and objective intervention,” he said. The center will encompass meditation, spiritual care, information about complementary medicine, and similar offerings in ways that can be shown to benefit patients and loved ones.
He is confident that his team will reach all patients in some way. Said Loscalzo: “Some patients get chemotherapy, some patients get radiation, some get bone marrow transplants — but all people have some sort of a spiritual life, everyone has a psychosocial life, and almost everyone has a family."