Oncology is a challenging but rewarding nursing specialty. With May being designated as Oncology Nursing Month, it’s a good time for nursing students to learn more about becoming an oncology nurse and connect with oncologists who have made the great big specialty leap.

Is Being an Oncology Nurse Right for You?

All nurses should be compassionate, precise, and resilient. That said, oncology is a particularly challenging subset of nursing due to the nature of the disease. As an oncology nurse, your days may include monitoring a patient’s physical condition, handling medication, and administering chemotherapy and other treatments.

Alene Nitzky, a certified oncology nurse and author of Navigating the C: A Nurse Charts The Course for Cancer Survivorship Care, emphasizes that the work can be very demanding. “Make sure you are really driven to do this work and that you have a true passion because it is extremely physically, mentally, and emotionally demanding,” she says.

Since oncology can be so emotionally exhausting, it’s important to practice good self-care. Stepping back and focusing on rest and rejuvenation will help you return to the job with even more sensitivity, empathy, and emotional resilience. Nurses of all sorts need to be able to dig deep emotionally, physically, and mentally to persevere through tough shifts.

A small mistake in medication dosage or timing can have devastating effects for an oncology patient, so attention to detail is important. Good oncology nurses will notice even small changes in their patients’ charts and are the first line of defense if something is amiss.

Diving into the world of oncology nursing also means that you’ll have to be comfortable with end-of-life issues, including grief and loss. Oncology nurses have to hone the psychosocial side of their role in addition to the highly technical aspects of monitoring their patients. Knowing when to listen to patients and their families versus offering consolation or advice is a key challenge for oncology nurses.

Keep in mind that pediatric oncology comes with the additional emotional challenge of helping young children and their families. A keen ability to navigate emotionally-charged groups is a must.

If you think that you have the emotional resilience, technical precision, and compassion to pursue oncology nursing, this field is incredibly rewarding.

Words of Wisdom from Oncology Nurses

If you’re thinking of pursuing a specialization in oncology nursing, you’ll want to explore the various types of positions available.

As an oncology nurse, you may find work in a variety of settings. You can get outside the hospital to work in a nursing home or health care center. This is ideal for nurses who may enjoy getting out to work in the community.

Oncology nurses can also work in the private sector or be nurse entrepreneurs to expand their horizons beyond the traditional health care setting. Nitzky adds, “Nursing students should seek opportunities to talk with oncology nurses who have left traditional health care and work in the community or public health settings, because they will give you a much more well-rounded look at the value you bring to your patients and clients.”

It’s always smart to reach out to a variety of experienced individuals in your chosen field. Track down several oncology nurses who work in traditional health care, in the community, and in public health settings. This will give you a better idea of the field you’re pursuing.

You’ll do a far better job of helping patients if you’re comfortable. Take care of yourself with good compression socks and comfortable nursing shoes.

The same goes for your mental health. Compassion fatigue or emotional burnout is a real challenge for many health care professionals. Since oncology nurses often work with very sick patients, they need to take extra care to not take work home. It’s easy to constantly think about that particularly charming patient or worry about parents who are on shaky emotional ground.

Just remember that you can’t do your best work if you’re emotionally and physically exhausted. Find ways to disengage from your patients and their families when you’re away from work and ensure that you have healthy self-care routines of diet, exercise, and rest.

The Joys and Challenges of Oncology Nursing

The oncology nurses we spoke to all named the patients as their favorite part of the job. Even when a patient’s cancer is quite advanced or a prognosis is poor, oncology nurses love making a difference in quality of life. Every day that you work with a cancer patient is another opportunity to make their lives better, which makes the job worthwhile.

When asked about the hardest part of being an oncology nurse, Nitzky said, “The most challenging part of the job is not what you’d think. It is difficult to lose patients after you’ve gotten to know them and bonded with them and their families, but the most challenging thing about the work is that you don’t have enough time to do all the things you know would make much more of a difference because you have too many administrative demands on you coming from your employer. Nursing is more about computer screens and documentation than it is about patient care, unfortunately.”

How to Become an Oncology Nurse

Becoming an oncology nurse requires extra schooling after nursing school, like any specialty. After getting an RN license, a prospective oncology nurse will need to meet specific eligibility criteria and pass an exam. The exact parameters vary state by state, but advanced certifications generally require a master’s degree or higher in nursing as well as hundreds of hours of supervised clinical practice.

The Oncology Nursing Certification Corporation offers a variety of certification options that you can pursue to stand out in a hiring pool and to further your knowledge of cancer care. Most certifications last for four years before they must be renewed with a recertification test or continuing education credits. To qualify, you have to spend at least one year working as an RN, work 1,000 hours in an oncology setting, and pass an exam. You can rotate into oncology units in many hospitals without extra certifications, but the knowledge gained with continuing education is worth its weight in gold to help patients further.

Checklist of Traits of a Great Oncology Nurse
  • Compassionate
  • Precise
  • Detail-oriented
  • Emotionally resilient
  • Passionate
  • Adept at reading social situations
  • Good at discerning when to listen and support
  • Competent at self-care skills
  • Comfortable with end-of-life issues, grief, and loss

Deborah Swanson

Deborah Swanson is a medical office professional with two decades of experience helping small practices and large hospitals alike improve efficiencies. She recently started consulting with allheart.com providing insight into the daily activities of medical professionals and how best to serve them.

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