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Darcy has over 30 years of experience as an oncology nurse serving in a variety of roles. She is currently the Survivorship Nurse Navigator at the Helen F Graham Cancer Center & Research Institute. In addition to her clinical experience, she has held leadership positions in the local and national Oncology Nursing Society and has authored articles, book chapters, and has presented locally and nationally on numerous oncology topics. Darcy is passionate about mentoring new oncology nurses and helping patients maximize their quality of life.

Compassion Fatigue, Burnout, or Both? What Can Oncology Nurses Do to Help Each Other?

Caring for patients with cancer is an incredible privilege, however, it can also generate considerable stress.
Caring for patients with cancer is an incredible privilege, however, it can also generate considerable stress. Oncology nurses function in a variety of roles and have many responsibilities that encompass a wide range of tasks.

Burnout gradually appears over time and traditionally occurs from conflict within the work setting, such as inadequate staffing, disagreements with managers or other colleagues, and caring for more complex patients. It can result in nurses experiencing somatic complaints such as headaches, gastrointestinal distress, and insomnia. Nurses may become more withdrawn, less empathetic, and may even leave their current position.

In contrast, compassion fatigue usually has a more acute onset and stems from relationships developed with patients and/or their families. While the burnt out nurse generally withdraws, the nurse experiencing compassion fatigue works harder to give more to their patients.

Symptoms described by nurses who have experienced compassion fatigue include inability to concentrate, isolation, fatigue along with sadness and discouragement. Both, however, leave the oncology nurse feeling depleted.

Although nurses are known as some of the most caring and giving professionals, they often find it difficult to nurture themselves. So, how can we help ourselves and our colleagues manage these concerns? Boyle (2011), identifies the following suggestions to help manage burnout and compassion fatigue:

1. Work/life balance such as exercise and attention to diet
2. Self-care strategies such as journaling, meditation, and attending to your spirituality
3. Establishing professional boundaries
4. Peer support/debriefing sessions

In our Cancer Center, we offer free exercise and yoga classes, access to exercise equipment, along with art therapy, journaling classes, an on-site meditation center, and labyrinth. In addition, our chaplain holds quarterly bereavement programs for all staff. We also have peer mentors and a quarterly Oncology Nursing Practice Council meetings where experiences and ideas are shared to help encourage and support each other.

Although November is identified as National Family Caregiver Month, it is just as important to care for ourselves so we can provide the best care to our patients.
Boyle, D. (1/31/11). Countering compassion fatigue: A requisite nursing agenda. OJIN: The Online Journal of Issues in Nursing 16(1), Manuscript 2.


Talk about this article with nurses and others in the oncology community in the General Discussions Oncology Nursing News discussion group.
More from Darcy Burbage, RN, MSN, AOCN, CBCN
There are over 14 million cancer survivors in the United States, a number that is expected to grow exponentially due to an aging population and improved methods for early detection and treatment. In the Institute of Medicine (IOM) report “From Cancer Patient to Cancer Survivor: Lost in Transition” the importance of addressing the ongoing physical and psychosocial challenges of cancer survivors was emphasized to encourage the multidisciplinary approach to survivorship as a distinct phase of the cancer continuum. Oncology nurses have an essential role in ensuring that quality survivorship care begins at diagnosis and continues throughout the balance of our patients' lives.
PUBLISHED: Tue February 16 2016
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