By Alex Stone
An oncology social worker comes full circle
By Alex Stone
Photographs by Bruce Gilden
The office of oncology social worker Les Gallo-Silver is overrun with elephants. There’s a sandalwood Indian wedding elephant on the filing cabinet, a pair of bronze elephant bookends on the shelf above it, a ceramic elephant tea pot, a tribe of elephant statuettes marching in a line on the windowsill, a jade elephant pendant dangling from a metal elephant coat-hook and, hanging on the wall next to that, a painting of a mother elephant and her calf lolling in a green field beneath a cloudless blue sky. “I’m an elephant person and everybody knows I’m an elephant person,” says Gallo-Silver with a smile, gesturing at the vast collection that adorns his office at LaGuardia Community College in Long Island City, New York. “Every time there is some occasion to exchange gifts, I get elephants.”
Why elephants? “I like the relational aspects,” says Gallo-Silver, 57, whose appearance, a study in gray—charcoal jacket over a light gray sweater, a gray patterned tie framed by an ivory-white collar, his hair dull silver shading into wisps of platinum—echoes that of the elephants that surround him. Elephants, he explains, travel in extended family groups. The calf latches onto the mother’s tail in order to stay with the group, and when the mother gets old, she latches onto the adult child’s tail. “The mother and child never forget they have this relationship,” he says. “Hence the saying: An elephant never forgets.”
Treating the Whole Patient
Gallo-Silver is a tall, patrician man, relaxed but intense, with an articulate voice that softens almost to a whisper when emphasizing a point. As an oncology social worker, he has played a role not unlike that of a mother elephant to thousands of cancer patients and their loved ones, guiding them through the difficult and confusing process of cancer treatments and helping them maintain a sense of control over their lives.
As a 2007 Institute of Medicine report, Cancer Care for the Whole Patient, explains, cancer patients are prone to a host of psychological and social problems: depression, anxiety, trouble at work and school, an inability to process all the information given to them—all of which can be anguishing and may interfere with recovery. Providing a cancer patient with quality care involves addressing these concerns along with the disease and treating the patient as a whole: mind, body and spirit.
Yet, only relatively recently have cancer patients and their families been encouraged to talk about the illness. For decades this need had largely been ignored. Gallo-Silver learned this firsthand at age 10, when his grandfather died of Hodgkin lymphoma. “Back then you really didn’t talk about what people died from,” recalls Gallo-Silver, who was raised by his grandparents because his mother was ill. “I was greatly affected by the suddenness of [his death] and the lack of preparation.” And, he says, not only did it sensitize him to the issues family members face when someone close to them dies of cancer, it played a role in his decision to become a social worker.
A Big Heart
Gallo-Silver has long been known for his giving nature. When he was 6 years old, he saved his ice cream money so he could buy his grandmother a birthday present. He bought her a large fake pearl on a yellow metal chain from a neighbor who was selling gifts for CancerCare, a national nonprofit that provides free assistance to cancer patients. “It was awful-looking, but she never took it off,” Gallo-Silver recalls. “She wore it the rest of her life.” Perhaps it was a sign: Many years later, he would become the director of clinical programs at CancerCare.