Skip to main content

Dealing with Compassion Fatigue One Day at a Time

Read Time: 3 minutes
Shay Wright-Martin

Tanner (left) and Shay (right)

From time to time, Huntsman Cancer Institute invites guest commentary from our community. The views reflected in these commentaries are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the official views of Huntsman Cancer Institute.

Shay Wright became full-time caregiver to her husband, Tanner, when he was diagnosed with stage IV colorectal cancer in 2020 at the age of 25.

At 25, you don’t think about becoming your spouse’s full-time caregiver. I have friends who are full-time caregivers for their kids with disabilities, or a sick parent, and I suppose it wasn’t in their plans either. But, you sacrifice anything for the ones you love and want to be with.

As a caregiver, you watch your loved one suffer through every ache and pain. Most of the time, there’s not really anything you can do. You can’t help them. Do you know how many times I have said “I’m sorry” this past year? Many times, the words feel like they are completely meaningless, but every time, they were heartfelt.

I remember expressing my feelings to my therapist. She said, “Shay, you are experiencing compassion fatigue.” I had heard of this term during my schooling. In the therapeutic world, this is the preoccupation with a client’s trauma, that results in secondary traumatic stress for the therapist. In our world, we are going to be preoccupied with our loved one’s situation. Anyone would be. The danger comes when we are so preoccupied, we start to suffer and burn ourselves out.

After some time as a caregiver to my husband, I stopped wanting to take care of myself. I had little desire to get ready, and absolutely no desire to do anything “responsible.” Work was hard. Chores were harder. Burnout affects you before touching everyone else, including the one you are taking care of.

It is very likely that you will experience burnout at some point, so how do you combat it?

My first suggestion, and I know this firsthand, is self-care. Ultimately, you can’t do a good job taking care of someone else if you are not taking care of yourself. I started with small tasks every day so I didn’t overwhelm myself.

If you aren’t familiar with the British Cycling Team, they did something very similar. In 2003, the team was struggling and hired a new performance director, Dave Brailsford. He had the team focus on making an improvement 1% at a time. At the 2004 Olympics Games, Great Britain won two gold medals, its best performance since 1908. In 2008 and 2012, it dominated, winning eight medals at each Olympics.

Here is an example of a “1% improvement” you can make. Start with taking a shower. If you accomplish that, then the next day, try taking a shower and getting ready. Add a new task each day. I finally got to a point where I felt like I could add a hobby, taking up couples & wedding photography. This creative outlet gave me purpose and motivation.

It’s easy to make the care of your loved one your purpose and motivation for surviving. However, if you make it your only purpose, you will get compassion fatigue and burnout. Take care of yourself so you can take care of your loved one.

Shay and Tanner take picture with their dog

Cancer touches all of us.