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Janet L. Abrahm

While there are operational, financial, and workforce barriers to integrating oncology with palliative care, part of the problem lies in ourselves, not in our systems. First, there is oncologists’ “learned helplessness” from years of practice without effective medications to manage symptoms or training in how to handle the tough communication challenges every oncologist faces. Unless they and the fellows they train have had the opportunity to work with a palliative care team, they are unlikely to be fully aware of what palliative care has to offer to their patients at the time of diagnosis, during active therapy, or after developing advanced disease, or may believe that, “I already do that.” The second barrier to better integration is the compassion fatigue many oncologists develop from caring for so many years for patients who, despite the oncologists’ best efforts, suffer and die. The cumulative grief oncologists experience may go unnamed and unacknowledged, contributing to this compassion fatigue and burnout, both of which inhibit the integration of oncology and palliative care. Solutions include training fellows and practicing oncologists in palliative care skills (eg, in symptom management, psychological disorders, communication), preventing and treating compassion fatigue, and enhancing collaboration with palliative care specialists in caring for patients with refractory distress at any stage of disease. As more oncologists develop these skills, process their grief, and recognize the breadth of additional expertise offered by their palliative care colleagues, palliative care will become integrated into comprehensive cancer care.