I know this post is not strictly about breast cancer, but since most of us will have at least one encounter with an oncologist – and sometimes many encounters – I thought it might help to share a little about what they go through, professionally and personally, when they lose a patient. Indeed, oncologists probably suffer more patient losses than any other field of medicine, such is the nature of cancer.
Also, we are more than likely on this journey to encounter the death of a close personal friend or family member to cancer, so I have listed some books at the end of this article which may assist you with dealing with loss.
Last year the JAMA Internal Medicine website released the results of a study: Nature and Impact of Grief Over Patient Loss on Oncologists’ Personal and Professional Lives
I believe that most of us tend to think that oncologists are somewhat unfeeling, that they go from patient to patient, making recommendations and doing their best to help them regain health, and that they have somehow found a way not to be affected by it all. Perhaps understanding the issues of grief and burnout can help us to be more compassionate with the way some oncologists and other health professionals behave.
I found this article to be vastly interesting and quite touching and it helped me to remember that oncologists are feeling people too. The article mentioned that more than half of oncologists and a third of trainees experience burnout and that the impact of patient loss on their lives was “a unique affective experience that had a smoke-like quality. Like smoke, this grief was intangible and invisible. Nonetheless, it was pervasive, sticking to the physicians’ clothes when they went home after work and slipping under the doors between patient rooms.“
Very eloquently stated, I don’t believe I’ve ever read such language in a research study.
One troubling thing I read, however, was that apparently many oncologists frequently failed to deal appropriately with grief after their patients died. One oncologist noted: “I’m up to the point where I probably lose one or two patients a week minimum … it’s a physical sensation of being ground away … it takes me a long time to recover from that.”
Grief Management Necessary For Residents, Oncologists
It was proposed that education on how to manage grief, beginning during residency, would be one way to ease the negative impact of losing patients. “Ongoing study and development of optimized coping strategies for oncologists” is needed, they argued.
I know that for myself personally, having worked with people affected by cancer over the years – my mother, a close personal friend, and several of my subscribers – I had little to no experience of death or dying. It took me a long time to work through my grief surrounding their deaths, so I can only imagine what oncologists go through, losing so many people that they have cared for and cared about.
I would like to recommend several resources which helped me greatly:
1. “The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying” by Sogyal Rinpoche
2. “The Top Five Regrets of the Dying” by Bronnie Ware
3. “On Death and Dying” by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross
These 3 books helped me to understand so much about the process of death, about grief, about living well and dying well.
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