Providing Support to Oncology Professionals

By Virginia Vaitones, MSW, OSW-C

Hands offering supportHealthcare professionals are known for hiding their grief. There is an unspoken (though outdated!) code that we must be strong. Or, put another way, that we just need to get used to it.

But with increased recognition of the high risk for burnout among healthcare professionals, this “old code” is coming under scrutiny.

Writing about “professional grief,” Elizabeth Clark, PhD, ACSW, MPH, former executive director of the National Association of Social Workers observes that “professional grief is generally hidden grief, grief that is internalized and not openly expressed . . . . There’s no natural outlet and demands of work overshadow it.” Grief that is stuffed away can and will accumulate which can lead to helplessness, hopelessness, anger, detachment, and burnout. Read more.

Serving on the frontlines of care, oncology nursing staff often build relationships with patients (and their families) who they often see for weeks and months. Not surprisingly, research has shown these healthcare professionals may be at risk for burnout syndrome.

At Sarah Cannon Cancer Institute at Johnston-Willis Hospital in Richmond, Virginia, the chaplain and social worker knew that “. . . more needed to be done to provide intentional, self-care opportunities for staff allowing them to break through layers of grief and become emotionally and spirituality stronger.”  With input from the oncology nurses serving on a bereavement committee, the program has developed the Reflection Service for staff only. In their article in the current edition of Oncology Issues, “Normalizing Feeling of Grief and Loss in Oncology Nurses,” Jennifer Collins, MDiv, MS, BCC, director of Pastoral Care at HCA, CJW Medical Center, and Sandra Tan, MSW, LCSW, ACHP-SW, a licensed clinical social worker at Sarah Cannon Cancer Institute at Johnston-Willis Hospital, share how their program has created a “safe space” for oncology nurses to reflect, share, and grieve in their cancer center. Read their story.

Those of us working in cancer care know that in the coming years, we are facing projected workforce shortages while our aging population will bring an increase in cancer diagnoses.  As the field of oncology grapples with these challenges and plans for the future, I think we can all agree that replacing the “old code” with a “new code” addressing and mitigating the risk of burnout among healthcare professionals is essential.


Virginia Vaitones, MSW, OSW-C, is a past president of the Association of Community Cancer Centers (ACCC)  and the Association of Oncology Social Work (AOSW). She is currently serving as Chair of the ACCC Editorial Committee. 

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