Face Time: Kerry Irish, oncology social worker

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Kerry Irish was in graduate school, planning to become a school guidance counselor, when her grandmother was diagnosed with cancer. Her family’s oncology social worker was a resource and a comfort. She was also an inspiration. 

Irish changed her career path.

Fifteen years later, she helped found the Dempsey Center in Lewiston, a nonprofit that helps cancer patients and their families for free. She was the center’s top administrator for three years, right up until the need to get back to her first love — working directly with people — became too great.

Today she’s back at the center, part administrator, part social worker. It’s not an easy path, working with cancer patients. But it’s meaningful. 

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“I say I would be rich if I could get a nickle for every time people are like, ‘That sounds really depressing and please don’t talk about it at dinner anymore,'” she joked. “But everybody’s got their little niche. This seems to be mine.”

Name: Kerry Cox Irish

Age: 49

Single/relationship/family: Married to Christopher Irish, with two teenage children, Jacob (a college student at CU Boulder) and Lilia (a junior at Hebron Academy).

Town: Norway

Job: Psychosocial services manager and licensed clinical social worker at the Dempsey Center.

You were director of the Dempsey Center for three years. What prompted you to leave? I’ve always been a clinician first and foremost, and nothing is more fulfilling to me than my direct work with clients. It was both an honor and a challenge for me to step into a purely administrative role, and I was upfront in saying when I was hired that I suspected I’d have a “three-year shelf life” in the role before I’d want to return to a role that would allow me to provide direct services. That turned out to be nearly exactly right, and I felt good about being able to step away from the center when it was on very solid footing, thriving with a lot of community support and a phenomenal staff and base of volunteers.

What’s your job now? I’m now serving as the center’s psychosocial services manager, which is a perfect blend of administrative and clinical work. I am responsible for overseeing our psychosocial, spiritual and bereavement care services and programs, and I also serve as a direct service provider, maintaining some of my hours for counseling and leading support groups.

Do people ever ask if your work is depressing? Yes, regularly! However, my response is always that while there is sadness in this work, it is never depressing. Conversely, most oncology professionals that I know across all disciplines find the work to be extremely fulfilling and inspiring.

What’s the best part about your job? This is a tough question, because I truly do love nearly everything about my job! Clinically, my specialty is working with folks who have advanced cancer, and one of the most personally and professionally meaningful aspects of my job is working with this population both individually and in our “Living With Hope” advanced cancer support group. Administratively, I love strategic planning, program development and supervising our professional psychosocial staff. We also have so many amazing volunteers at the Dempsey Center, and I love working with them and being inspired by their generosity with their time and talent!

The most challenging part? The days when it feels like the treadmill is set at a level 10 and my normal pace is a six!

Any favorite stories? I have a lot of good stories that relate to how people have taught me that living well is not contingent upon one’s health. Most recently, a very dear client who was nearing the end of her life was in the hospital due to pain and nausea. Despite her obvious physical discomfort, she shared that she still felt a great sense of purpose and satisfaction by holding the intention that anyone who came into her room would “leave with a smile.” She could no longer work (something that had brought her great satisfaction), could no longer travel or hike or kayak or do any of the other things that had previously brought a lot of meaning and joy to her life, but she could find a deep sense of purpose in how she interacted with others.

Advice for people dealing with cancer? To know that you don’t have to go through it alone — to find your community, whether it be family, friends, church or a cancer support organization such as the Dempsey Center — for support, help and encouragement.

Advice for their loved ones? The same as above! The cancer impact is often just as hard on close loved ones as it is on the person who has cancer. This is why we’ve been very intentional about making all of our programs and services at the Center available to loved ones just as they are for patients.

What’s one lesson you’ve learned over the years? That everything is temporary, so hold the current moment both lightly and with intention. By that I mean recognize that this moment will pass, but make the most of it by being conscious about what really matters. For me, that means trying to live with a sense of purpose, gratitude and joy.

Kerry Irish

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