Cancer affects millions of people in the United States every year, either through new diagnosis or due to remissions of previously treated cancers.
In 2019, the American Cancer Association estimated that nearly 1.7 million people received a new diagnosis of cancer. More than half a million people died in 2019 due to cancer, making it the second most common cause of death in the United States.
With so many people affected by cancer, the field of oncology is an ever-growing and ever-changing specialty in health care. For registered nurses looking for a career path to pursue and wondering if oncology is right for them, here’s what you should know about becoming an oncology nurse.
What Is an Oncology Nurse?
Oncology is the study of cancer. Within the health care field, oncology is the field where health care professionals specialize in preventing, detecting, diagnosing, and treating cancer at all of its stages.
An oncology nurse works within that field in one of many roles, working to provide and organize patient care, education, and advocacy. They can work with patients who already have cancer or who are at risk of getting cancer.
What Do They Do?
The roles and responsibilities of an oncology nurse are entirely dependent on the type of job. For some nurses in this specialty, they may work at the beginning of a cancer diagnosis, working in clinics or at community centers to do cancer screenings and educate people on how to prevent cancer.
Other oncology nurses work with patients throughout their treatment. They might work with pre-screening patients before their radiation or chemotherapy treatments, help educate patients on how to manage the symptoms from treatments and cancer, or provide follow-up care in the home.
For patients at the end of their cancer treatments, a nurse in this specialty might work in a role that helps with routine annual screenings to check for remission, or with hospice or home care at the end of a patient’s life. Other nurses may find an interest in working in blood and bone marrow transplant services to treat blood and bone cancers.
As with any nurse specialty, nurses can work in jobs that provide direct patient care, or they can work in office settings or in management at any facility that provides care to patients with cancer and their family and caregivers.
Cancer affects patients of every age and walk of life, and that means there are many opportunities for a nurse to find a place in the oncology field that they would find the most rewarding.
Where Do They Work?
Cancer is a complex disease with many different variations. For the nurses that specialize in treating patients with cancer, that means that there’s a variety of roles they can fill.
Most oncology nurses work in hospital systems, either in hospitals that specialize in treating cancers or on units within multi-disciplinary hospitals. Other nurses work in outpatient care, doctor’s offices, or in-home care.
Within these facilities, an oncology nurse can specialize further, choosing to work in general adult patient care or as a subspecialty in specialties like surgery, radiology, gynecology, or pediatrics.
How Can You Become an Oncology Nurse?
To become an oncology nurse, you’ll first need to be a registered nurse. Once you’ve graduated from an accredited registered nursing program at an Associate of Nursing degree level and then passed the NCLEX-RN exam, you can start applying for jobs that interest you.
However, nowadays many employers prefer to hire registered nurses who have a Bachelor of Science (BSN) degree at the minimum. Not only does a BSN make you more competitive in the hiring field, but it also helps you improve your knowledge of the field, open more opportunities, and generally give you access to better pay.
For nurses serious about working in administration or in jobs with more autonomy, a master’s degree or doctorate degree program in a related field or to become a nurse practitioner is the next educational step.
After school, experience is the most valuable way to become an oncology nurse. Even if you can’t get your dream oncology job now, working in the field helps you build the connections, knowledge, and skills needed to find a place in the subspecialty you find the most rewarding.
Nurses interested in working within the field of oncology have the option of joining a professional organization. The Oncology Nursing Society aims at providing opportunities and resources to oncology nurses to better themselves, their careers, and the field itself.
As with many specialties, nurses in oncology also have the opportunity to become certified within their specialty. The Oncology Nursing Certification Corporation provides certification to show and validate that a registered nurse has the knowledge and skills to specialize in working in the oncology field.
There are several types of accredited certifications that nurses can pursue through the ONCC:
- Oncology Certified Nurse (OCN®)
- Certified Pediatric Hematology-Oncology Nurse (CPHON®)
- Certified Breast Care Nurse (CBCN®)
- Blood & Marrow Transplant Certified Nurse (BMTCN®)
- Advanced Oncology Certified Nurse Practitioner (AOCNP®)
Depending on what specialty within oncology you end up pursuing, these certifications can make you competitive for these types of jobs as well as help you hone your skills, so your patients are getting the best, most up-to-date care for their cancer.
Why Become an Oncology Nurse?
Cancer is a devastating diagnosis for our patients, and for many, it’s a long, exhausting, and painful process that can last months to years. These patients can be children, teenagers, adults, or older adults from every socioeconomic, cultural, or ethnic background.
Such a diverse patient demographic needs nurses who are willing to take the time to understand their patients’ needs and help them and their family members through the many stages of cancer with compassion. Oncology nursing is a field with many unique opportunities and challenges, and one that provides you the opportunity to help many people with their fights against cancer.