By Rebekah Flynn, DNP, APRN, AGCNS-BC, AOCNS®, OCN®

Rebekah Flynn
By Rebekah Flynn, DNP, APRN, AGCNS-BC, AOCNS®, OCN®

Oncology nurses at every professional level may encounter a variety of unexpected experiences, ranging from unkind words uttered by a patient or coworker to a medication error or the traumatic or untimely death of a beloved patient. Although the events seem like isolated, separate experiences, they can have a compounding impact on a nurse’s well-being.

How do you come back to the work and the patients you love when you experience something unexpected?

Take Time to Reflect

Self-reflection is an important step in finding your way back from unexpected events that have a negative impact on your practice. Consider the situation you experienced:

  • What did I learn from the event?
  • Could I have done something differently?
  • If I face a similar situation in the future, would I make the same decisions?

Every situation, whether good or not-so-good, should be used an as opportunity to learn something. Reflecting on the experience will help nurses to grow their professional maturity.

Talk With a Mentor or Colleague

When you are new to oncology, connecting with an experienced nurse who can help you problem solve is crucial—not only for your practice but for your own well-being. A mentor can listen to your concerns and brainstorm ideas to manage difficult situations in the future. A great mentor will help you through the tough times but will also celebrate your successes along the way.

Even the most seasoned nurses need a sounding board from time to time. Consider finding support in your workplace or look to your professional organization—like ONS—and connect with your local ONS chapter members or the larger membership on the ONS Communities.

Promote Self-Care

Even on the best days when you don’t experience any unexpected events, oncology nurses can still become emotionally drained from the demands of caring for a unique patient population. With the added stress of an unexpected event, nurses are at increased risk for emotional fatigue.

Find what speaks to your soul, and consider the following self-care strategies:

  • Practice yoga, meditation, or prayer.
  • Sing, dance, or listen to your favorite music.
  • Take a walk or go to the gym.
  • Paint, draw, knit, write, or journal.

Taking the time to focus on yourself can go a long way to preventing compassion fatigue and managing the mounting stress of work. Nurses have a responsibility to care for themselves, so they’re in the best possible condition to care for their patients.

Recognize Your Humanness

Oncology nurses always strive to deliver high-quality, compassionate care. If an event led to an undesired outcome, nurses need to recognize their inability to control everything. The road back to realizing your own humanness may require working through thoughts and feelings that were never anticipated.

You may experience anxiety, depression, or grief, and that’s okay. Address those feelings as an exercise in personal and professional growth. Working through normal human emotions can be humbling, but the process can be used to expand your resiliency.

Whatever you’ve experienced and overcome in your professional role should be a driver to continue the important work of being an oncology nurse. Recognizing how to work through the unexpected enables us to come back stronger and healthier and be there for our patients and their families during their cancer journey.