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Unfortunately, nearly everyone knows someone who has had cancer. As a result, there are many oncology nurses working to help patients get through their experiences—whether with surgery and the aftercare, chemo, radiation, immunotherapy, and the like.

We interviewed Savannah Dunivant, RN, BSN, a nurse working in oncology at the University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Medical Center, located in Bel Air, Maryland. She gave insight into what it’s like to work with these amazing patients.

Describe a typical work day for an oncology nurse. What do you enjoy most about it?

A typical work day can be quiet or hectic, but it is always rewarding. Certain tasks must always be completed: Physical assessments, administering medications, bathing, toileting, and rounding with doctors. You may have a patient who is newly diagnosed with cancer or you may have a patient that gets to go home.

I enjoy each day I get to spend with my patients, seeing them smile or reach for my hand. I have always said that with such a terrible disease as cancer, I hope that one good and positive thing that could come from their stay is me and the care I provide.

What are the various types of jobs that nurses can get in oncology?

There are various opportunities for nurses in the oncology field, such as staff/floor/inpatient unit nurse, Infusion Therapy, and Radiation. The primary role is teaching patients and families what to expect and to monitor patients for pain, fatigue, appetite, any side effects of treatments, etc.  Nurse Navigators have oncology-specific knowledge and can give individualized assistance to patients, families, and caregivers to help navigate the health care system barriers.

What kinds of changes have occurred more recently in the oncology field? Why is it a good specialty for nurses to pursue?

There are many changes within oncology. Medications are always changing as are the treatments and protocols. There is always room to advance your skills and abilities.

What have you learned from working as a nurse in oncology?

That life is a very precious thing and never take time for granted.

What are the biggest challenges of working as an oncology nurse?

The biggest challenge is the emotional involvement you can create with your patient, although it is a positive thing. I once spent many of my shifts with a patient who then passed away, which was difficult for me. Nursing practice and your patients always take up a little piece of your heart, and it hurts to let them go—especially when we have been with them from first diagnosis to first chemo and beyond, up until when the treatment has just become too much. Your team members are your family, and your regular oncology patients become like family. But when it comes time to see them go, you know that they are no longer in pain, and you learn to love your memories of them.

What are the greatest rewards of being an oncology nurse?

The greatest reward is hearing your patient’s gratitude and knowing how much they care for you as a nurse.

What would you say to a nurse considering working in oncology? What kind of training do they need?

Go for it! It takes a special person to be an oncology nurse! It’s important to be trained in difficult situations and conversations as well as chemo certification and training in order to educate the patients and families. Oncology certification is important in order to educate patients and families and knowing the side effects or reactions to treatments. It is also important to be trained in “comfort care/palliative care.”

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Michele Wojciechowski

Michele Wojciechowski is an award-winning writer and author of the humor book Next Time I Move, They’ll Carry Me Out in a Box.

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