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The Oncology Nurse

Tricks and Tips to Deal with Compassion Fatigue

"I still see her eyes, big and warm you know? My little girl... such a brave girl.’’ Mr. Gregory turned to me as I reassembled the Ambu bag (BVM) back. My hands were shaking and I was struggling so hard not to cry in front of him. I mean it's my work to prepare patients for such news not to cry with them. Julia was only 4 years old when she got diagnosed with Leukemia; she was the first patient I attended to on my first day at work. She was such a tiny little girl who held the entire world on her shoulder, so mindful of what others did for her, she would smile at her parents just to protect from worrying about her, The day before this was her 7th birthday I got her a tiny blue bear "Monkey do you like it?" She smiled and tried to remove the oxygen mask from her face, "you can't do that Julie." I reached out to readjust the Facemask for her “I’m not dying, not on my birthday." She replied innocently

I walked in in the morning to find her mom and dad by her bedside, her mom was stroking her hand. I greeted them and proceeded to explain to them I had come to check on her and take a few readings

She appeared frail, "hi monkey?" She tried to smile then her face changed suddenly as if something had hit her, she held tight to my hand and jerked violently, her mouth frothing and her face turned pale. The monitors went blaring and I pressed the nurse button to get an assistant for the resuscitation process as I assessed her. This was to be the last day of her brave fight with cancer at such a young age.

Compassion fatigue is also known as secondary traumatic stress is defined as:

"Apathy or indifference toward the suffering of others as a result of overexposure to tragic news, experiences of others and the subsequent appeals for assistance."

In the psychological sense compassion fatigue can be equated to post-traumatic stress. Research shows that up to 76.9% of Oncology nurses experience symptoms of traumatization. Nearly 90 of new nurses between the age-group 30-39 report that their families have suffered as a result of their work-related stress. Struggling with responses to traumatic events suffered by patients in nursing practice though common is very detrimental to individual's mental health, work productivity, relationships and physical wellbeing.

Compassion fatigue symptoms can range from anger, dissociation, nightmares, and feelings of helplessness, sleep disturbances, fainting spells, and headaches among others. Early identification and self-care is very vital in any given healthcare setting.

Both psychological and somatic self-care approaches have been shown to help reduce susceptibility to compassion fatigue in the course of nursing care.

Here are four steps that can help


Discover techniques to control your emotions and to delineate them from the patient's, take a deep breath to relax during a stressful event


Do a self-reflection on the event concern and list reasons why you feel touched by it and reasons why you shouldn't be so touched. Begin every sentence with I and write 5 points on each side and read them aloud.


Find someone you can talk to about such situations, a colleague, friend, or anyone you trust don't keep it to yourself.


It is extremely important to learn how to separate your work from your life. I know you probably heard that hundred times, but it's a key message. Try to block all thoughts and concerns when your shift is over and concentrate on your loved ones.

Getting support, relaxation techniques and a vacation can also be both prophylactic and therapeutic in the event of compassion fatigue. Give yourselves a break.

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