January 6, 2010 16:17 Age: 4 yrs

PERSPECTIVE: Improving Cancer Patients’ Quality of Life

By: Holly Cline

Haley Schwartz 05L (right) prepares her Atlanta Legal Aid client, Nella Walker, before a court appearance at the Fulton County Courthouse. Schwarz was honored for her work with the Breast Cancer Legal Project through Atlanta Legal Aid.

Haley Schwartz 05L didn’t set out to become a patient advocate, but she’s found her niche. The American Cancer Society recently named her a 2009 Lane W. Adams Quality of Life Award recipient because of her work with the Breast Cancer Legal Project.

The prestigious award recognizes individuals making a difference by providing compassionate care and counsel to cancer patients and their families. As director of the project, Schwartz addresses legal needs for low-income breast cancer patients so they can focus on treatment and wellness.

“Women who have limited resources and systems of support need an advocate to deal with the legal aspects of the medical, economic and personal issues that arise when patients are debilitated by their illness,” Schwartz says.

Schwartz launched the project as an Equal Justice Works Fellow at the Atlanta Legal Aid Society in 2005. The most common issues Schwartz’s clients face are access to disability benefits, healthcare, housing, wills, advance directives and employment rights.   

“Most of the women we work with aren’t aware of their legal rights or programs, which can help offset financial burdens and provide access to public benefits,” Schwartz says. “They also need help preparing applications for Social Security, disability or ssi [Supplemental Security Income] and making end-of-life decisions, such as who will care for their children.”

While at Emory Law, Schwartz recognized her passion for helping domestic violence victims and knew she wanted to continue working with women and children. As she narrowed her focus for fellowship opportunities, her mentor, Debbie Segel 79L, suggested Schwartz work with Atlanta Legal Aid to address the needs of breast cancer patients.

“My mom was a caretaker for her best friend battling breast cancer, so I have been intimately exposed to the disease. Launching the Project was an opportunity to make a difference and address an issue that was near and dear to me.”

Four years later, between robust community outreach and spending time with patients in waiting rooms, the Breast Cancer Legal Project is a valuable resource to countless women and their families. Schwartz is thinking about what’s next.

“Our hope is to address the needs of the cancer community at large,” she says. “The core needs of cancer patients are the same. We want to help more people get access to legal services, so they can focus on treatment and wellness, instead of legal issues.”

Schwartz’s drive to help this patient population is one of the primary reasons she received the award, but she credits everyone she works with for her recognition and shares the honor with them.

“The award is not mine alone. I cannot do this work without the support and expertise of my Atlanta Legal Aid colleagues and the cancer support community. We’re all in the trenches together trying to make the lives of patients a little bit easier.”

Schwartz is one of her clients’ strongest advocates, and as the award indicates, she’s truly helping improve their quality of life.

Holly Cline is a freelance writer based in Atlanta.

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