Aubrey Mora is one of the dedicated Four Diamonds social workers at Penn State Health Children’s Hospital. Her days are spent helping families facing childhood cancer and, as described by a parent, “being the light in the really dark days.” Aubrey’s journey to becoming a social worker for pediatric cancer patients is an interesting one, as she is a survivor of childhood cancer herself.

Four Diamonds Social Worker, Aubrey, with a patient.

The Beginning of a Childhood Cancer Journey

Aubrey was born with her left leg being larger than her right. Biopsies weren’t typically done for this condition, and it was considered to be a birth defect. Shortly before her first birthday and after multiple therapies were attempted, the doctors did a biopsy where they discovered fibrosarcoma: a tumor that originates in the connective fibrous tissue found at the ends of bones of the arm or legs.

The only current treatment was amputation, so Aubrey lost her left leg at a very young age. Not long after the amputation, Aubrey was fitted for a prosthetic. At the time, and because of her age, the design was very basic, and did not have a knee, or a hinge. Aubrey’s dad actually worked with the prosthetist to have one added.

Two years later, Aubrey was in preschool and complaining of chest pains, which is not common for a preschooler. She was sent for a scan, where a football size tumor was discovered in her lungs. Aubrey received IV chemotherapy for the better part of two years that resulted in the shrinkage of the tumor to the size of a walnut. The surgeons were then able to go and remove the tumor. That marked the end of this part of Aubrey’s childhood cancer journey.

Collage of photos featuring Four Diamonds Social Worker, Aubrey, as a child.

During her treatment, Aubrey and her family worked with now retired Four Diamonds social worker Greg Baiocchi. Greg was a beacon of light for over 35 years as a Four Diamonds social worker, offering tremendous support to Four Diamonds families who were fighting cancer. As she grew up, Aubrey would assist Greg on occasion while he talked with new patients that were facing amputation as the treatment for childhood cancer. This helped show kids that they can survive and thrive like Aubrey.

Aubrey never thought of herself as having a disability and was never treated any differently by family or friends. The first time she noticed being different was when she was trying out for school sports. She started to notice that she couldn’t keep up with the other players, and started to wonder why she was the only student with one leg trying out for cheerleading. However, she didn’t let that stop her. Aubrey persevered, made the cheer squad and was on the swim team.

Photos of newspaper clippings from when social worker Aubrey was a child.

A Calling to Help Those Facing Childhood Cancer

When Aubrey headed off to college, she knew she wanted to do something with pediatric oncology. It was a calling of sorts that shaped her perspective on the world. What she was confident about though, was that she did not want to go into social work. She thought she might become an oncologist, or something else in the field of childhood cancer, but the calling was bringing her back to something she knew well. She had meetings with her college advisor where she was told that she should go into social work. It wasn’t until she started taking some classes related to social work that she understood where her journey was taking her. After completing her undergraduate degree, she headed for her graduate school where part of the curriculum involved an internship. Zoom in on the next step in her childhood cancer journey: a reunion with Greg, her own Four Diamonds social worker. Greg brought her in for an internship in a heartbeat. Not long after she completed her internship and her degree, another Four Diamonds social work position became available, and she began her career where her journey began. It all came full circle.

When asked if she discloses her own childhood cancer journey to the families she works with, Aubrey said, “I only self-disclose if I feel like it will benefit the family. When I do, it does foster a deeper connection with the family.” Aubrey is a survivor, and that is something to be proud of and celebrate, but she honestly does not remember much of the treatment. “Many families are dealing with feelings that their children are going to be traumatized by this journey and the treatment,” said Aubrey. “The parents will remember, but the youngest of our patients won’t. Kids are so resilient. They won’t hold onto the bad parts; they will remember the good memories. Kids want to be kids, and don’t want to be known as the kid with cancer. Ignorance is bliss.”

Being a Childhood Cancer Social Worker and the Importance of Teamwork

Aubrey’s days typically start with a visit to Starbucks and then she hits the ground running. Her days are always changing and are never the same. While she has a list of priorities each day, she is pulled in a multitude of directions and goes where she is needed most. Aubrey meets the patients where they are at, both physically and emotionally. They are the single most important thing.

Teamwork is vital with the social work team. “I could not get through the day without my Four Diamonds social work colleagues: Sara, Heather and Keri,” says Aubrey. “Between the four of us, we have so much passion to serve and support our pediatric oncology families. My colleagues are some of the most compassionate and hardworking people I have ever had the pleasure of working with. We have our mentor, Greg Baiocchi, to thank for his unwavering guidance.”

Photo of Four Diamonds Social Work Team

Aubrey described being a Four Diamonds social worker as very different than that of other social workers in the hospital, or other health care settings. “The relationships that I am able to make with families and patients because of Four Diamonds is invaluable,” says Aubrey. “We get to follow their journey through in-patient, clinic and survivorship.” Not every health care system provides the same continuation of care, and patients and families have a different social worker at each stage of their journey. “That’s what makes our jobs so special,” said Aubrey. A parent recently told Aubrey that when they didn’t have any light left that day, Aubrey called them on the phone to check in and the parent told her she was her “shining star” that day. “You may not think a simple phone call is all that much,” said Aubrey, “but it can bring amazing hope and light to a family.”

Aubrey recalled a time when a family helped her learn that she needed to keep pushing through when families may indicate that they may not need them. Early on, she worked with a family who said they didn’t need a social worker. Aubrey stood firm and said, “we are a different breed of social worker” and knew the family needed her support. The family eventually came around and told Aubrey that they did need her, and they needed her more than she could ever know. It taught her to continue to offer the resources to families, as they have not been on this journey before, and it is her mission to help them and guide them and provide coping and emotional support and a multitude of resources.

A Childhood Cancer Journey Coming Full Circle

Aubrey Mora has been part of Four Diamonds since birth. Her journey has come full circle, and she knows she is exactly where she needs to be. Aubrey’s entire life experience with childhood cancer, from her own battle to her career has taught her many things, but there is some advice that she wants families facing this to know. “YOU ARE NOT ALONE,” says Aubrey. “Your life is going to be flipped upside down, and yes, you will have to find a new normal, but you do not have to suffer in silence. There are so many resources available to you and you ALWAYS have someone in your corner to help you no matter what. We are okay with you not being okay, we are here to help you through that. We aren’t scared, and we aren’t going anywhere.”

Four Diamonds Social Worker, Aubrey.

To learn more about how Four Diamonds is helping families facing childhood cancer, click here.