The "specter" of cancer: Exploring secondary trauma for health professionals providing cancer support and counseling

Document Type

Journal Article


American Psychological Association


Faculty of Health, Engineering and Science


School of Psychology and Social Science




Breen L.J., O'Connor M., Hewitt L.Y., Lobb E.A. (2014). The "specter" of cancer: Exploring secondary trauma for health professionals providing cancer support and counseling. Psychological Services, 11(1), 60-67. Available here


Health professionals are vulnerable to occupational stress and tend to report high levels of secondary trauma and burnout; this is especially so for those working in "high-death" contexts such as cancer support and palliative care. In this study, 38 health professionals (psychologists, social workers, pastoral carers/chaplains, nurses, group facilitators, and a medical practitioner) who provide grief support and counseling in cancer and palliative care each participated in a semistructured interview. Qualitatively, a grounded theory analysis revealed four themes: (a) the role of health professionals in supporting people who are experiencing grief and loss issues in the context of cancer, (b) ways of working with patients with cancer and their families, (c) the unique qualities of cancer-related loss and grief experiences, and (d) the emotional demands of the work and associated self-care. The provision of psychological services in the context of cancer is colored by the specter of cancer, an unseen yet real phenomenon that contributes to secondary trauma and burnout. The participants' reported secondary trauma has serious repercussions for their well-being and may compromise the care they provide. The findings have implications for the retention and well-being of personnel who provide psychosocial care in cancer and the quality and delivery of services for people with cancer and their families.



Access Rights

subscription content