How to Become an Oncology Nurse
Many people who enter the healthcare industry have a particular interest in caring for others. When it comes to caring for someone with cancer, that interest can take on a more dedicated form.
With roughly 40% of Americans likely to be diagnosed with cancer at some point, there’s a good chance that a fight with the disease — whether a loved one’s or one’s own — can heighten one’s interest in caring for others with cancer or working to cure it. For those individuals, oncology nursing may be their calling.
The career requires specialized training, however, it is a rewarding one with outstanding earning potential and job security.
If you’re interested in becoming an oncology nurse, you’re in the right place. Below, we’ll review the nursing program and qualifications you need to become an oncology nurse. We’ll also discuss some of the traits that can make you an outstanding oncology nurse.
What is an Oncology Nurse?
Oncology is the field of healthcare that focuses on cancer.
Oncology nurses play an important role in treating this devastating disease. They work directly with patients, administer their treatment, and provide invaluable emotional support to them and their families. They also educate patients, family and caregivers on the disease and treatment process, offering resources for care that extend beyond health facility walls.
Many oncology nurses develop deep relationships with their patients as they undergo treatment. Oncology nursing also offers plenty of opportunities for life-long learning and professional growth. In turn, it can be a very rewarding profession.
What Do Oncology Nurses Do?
A day in the life of an oncology nurse varies depending on the workplace and the unique needs of each patient.
For example, some oncology nurses may work in an outpatient clinic where they coordinate care and administer chemotherapy. Other oncology nurses may work in the hospital setting and provide care for patients who are undergoing interventions to treat their cancer (e.g. surgery or bone marrow transplant).
Additionally, hospital-based oncology nurses will often also treat patients who experience complications during their course of treatment (fever or sepsis) as well as disease progression. No matter the setting, oncology nurses collaborate closely with the interdisciplinary team and are essential for care coordination and educating and supporting the patient and the patient’s family and caregivers.
With that in mind, the general tasks of an oncology nurse include:
Obtaining the patients’ health history
Administering chemotherapy and other medications
Assessing for complications that arise during treatment
Tracking diagnostic test results
Collaborating with an interdisciplinary treatment team to coordinate care
Educating patients and their loved ones about treatments and prevention methods
Helping patients with symptom management
Offering patients empathy and support if they require end of life care
How Do I Become a Certified Oncology Nurse?
Oncology nurses must go through specialized education and training before they can begin treating patients. If you’re wondering how to specialize in oncology nursing, here are the steps you’ll need to take:
#1 Earn Your Degree in Nursing
Before you can become an oncology nurse, you need to become a registered nurse (RN). To do so, you must earn one of the following degrees:
Associate of Degree in Nursing (ADN)
Bachelor of Science degree in Nursing (BSN)
Direct entry masters (MSN)
Both of these nursing programs will introduce you to the fundamentals of nursing. However, a bachelor’s degree can set you up for better employment opportunities and a higher salary.
If you already have a bachelor’s degree in another field, you can get an accelerated BSN (ABSN) degree through a distanced education program. These expedited nursing programs can be completed in a year or two, rather than four.
What Will You Learn?
No matter what program you choose, your nursing education will teach you the fundamentals of clinical nursing. A BSN program, however, will provide a deeper understanding of the following subjects:
Clinical nursing skills
While entry level nursing programs do not have specific coursework in oncology. The disease processes and corresponding care for patients with oncological conditions are covered from a generalist perspective throughout the curriculum.
#2 Take the National Council Licensure Exam
Once you’ve earned your nursing degree, you must obtain your RN license. To do so, you’ll need to take the National Council Licensure Exam (NCLEX-RN). This exam is required for licensure in all 50 states and DC.
During this exam, you’ll get the chance to demonstrate your expertise in:
Injury and illness treatment
Safety and risk mitigation
Once you pass the NCLEX-RN and obtain your license from the state, you will officially be a licensed nurse. As a result, you can start practicing as a nurse and gain valuable experience in the oncology field.
#3 Apply for a Position in Oncology
If you want to be an oncology nurse, you should look for positions in workplaces that manage patients with oncological conditions
Aspiring oncology nurses can find jobs in:
Home care agencies
Extended care facilities
Once you begin your first oncology job, you’ll learn even more about the field and develop your skill set. You’ll also put in the hours of real-world experience you need to be eligible for certification in the future.
#4 Consider Getting Certified by the Oncology Nursing Certification Corporation
Acquiring a certification in oncology nursing can help you display your expertise to employers, bolster your resume, improve your job options, and increase your earning potential. The Oncology Nursing Certification Corporation (ONCC) allows you to choose from the following certifications:
Oncology Certified Nurse (ONC)
Certified Pediatric Hematology Oncology Nurse (CPHON)
Certified Breast Care Nurse (CBCN)
Blood and Marrow Transplant Certified Nurse (BMTCN)
Advanced Oncology Certified Nurse Practitioner (AOCNP)
Advanced Oncology Certified Clinical Nurse Specialist (AOCNS)
Certified Pediatric Oncology Nurse (CPON)
Fundamentals of Chemotherapy Immunotherapy Administration
Advanced Oncology Certified Nurse (AOCN)
If you’ve administered chemotherapy for at least a year and a month, you can also earn an ONS/ONCC Chemotherapy Biotherapy Certificate.
Before you can take any of these certification exams, you must meet certain eligibility requirements. For example, you may need a graduate level nursing degree—such as a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) or Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP)—to qualify for some of these certifications. The ONCC also requires you to:
An active, unrestricted RN license
A minimum of two years nursing experience within the past four years
A minimum of 2,000 hours of adult oncology nursing practice
A minimum of 10 contact hours of continued nursing education
Once you meet these eligibility requirements, you can schedule your chosen certification exam. The ONCC provides many helpful preparation materials on their website, including content outlines and sample tests. Earning this certification is recommended for nurses who wish to advance their career in the healthcare industry, thus leading to higher salaries, wider scopes of care, and more leadership opportunities.
#5 Keep Up With Continuing Education Requirements
Since cancer research is continuously evolving, oncology nurses need to stay up to date with their education. This is why the ONCC requires a continued nursing education for their certificate program, to make sure nurses are staying up to date on the latest treatment and care practices. Additionally, certified oncology nurses must meet these requirements and renew their certification every four years.
If you want to advance your career, you may also want to enroll in a master’s nursing degree program to obtain your MSN. This advanced degree will enable you to become a nurse practitioner and qualify for more leadership positions at your workplace.
What Skills Do You Need to be an Oncology Nurse?
Getting your degrees, licensure, and certification will allow you to practice as an oncology nurse. However, it also helps to possess certain skills.
Most notably, you should have exceptional interpersonal skills. A cancer diagnosis is an incredibly emotional event for patients and their families. Knowing how to care for patients going through this type of emotional distress is important.
If you’re considering this career, it’s also helpful if you enjoy getting to know people. Unlike many other nursing professions, oncology nurses often treat the same patients for months to years at a time. Throughout this long journey together, you’ll get to know your patients and their families on a deeper level.
What is the Job Outlook and Salary for Oncology Nurses?
Not only is oncology nursing a fulfilling career, but it’s also a lucrative one with outstanding job prospects.
- Job Outlook – The job market is currently growing, due to a shortage of registered nurses and an increasing need for care. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the nursing field is projected to grow by 7 percent from 2019 to 2029. An oncology nursing specialty, in particular, offers great job security. Since this field requires specialized expertise, oncology nurses are in high demand. Additionally, 90% of all cancer diagnoses occur in people who are 45 years or older. As a large aging Baby Boomer population enters their golden years, the demand for oncology nurses will continue to rise.
- Salary – According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average salary for a registered nurse is $73,300. If you obtain a master’s degree and become a nurse practitioner, you can earn an even higher salary. Nurse practitioners earn an average annual salary of $114,510. Due to the specialization involved in oncology nursing, you may qualify for a higher salary in this nursing field than you would in other ones. However, your salary will vary based on your degree, certifications, experience, and workplace.
Accelerate Your Pediatric Nursing Career with ABSN Online
Are you ready to embark on your journey of becoming an oncology nurse? If so, the first step is to choose a nursing program that’s right for you.
If you’ve already earned a bachelor’s degree in another field, and you want to earn your BSN as quickly as possible, you may want to enroll in an accelerated Bachelor of Science in Nursing (ABSN) program. Unlike traditional four-year BSN programs, online ABSN programs can be completed in as little as 12 months. An ABSN program may be ideal for you, especially if you’ve already earned a bachelor’s degree in another subject.
The content published on our blog is reviewed by credentialed healthcare professionals to give you the most up-to-date and professionally accurate information. This particular article was professionally reviewed by Colleen Sanders, RN, FNP-BC on July 28, 2021.
NCSBN. NCLEX & Other Exams. https://www.ncsbn.org/nclex.htm
Oncology Nursing Certification Corporation. Certifications. https://www.oncc.org/certifications
Oncology Nursing Certification Corporation. Renew Certifications. https://www.oncc.org/renew-certifications
Oncology Nursing Society. ONS/ONCC Chemotherapy Immunotherapy Certificate Course. https://www.ons.org/courses/onsoncc-chemotherapy-immunotherapy-certificate-course
ONCC. Oncology Certified Nurse OCN. https://www.oncc.org/certifications/oncology-certified-nurse-ocn
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Registered Nurses: Job Outlook. https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/registered-nurses.htm#tab-6
WebMD. Cancer Incidence Rates by Age. https://www.webmd.com/cancer/guide/cancer-incidence-age
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Registered Nurses: Pay. https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/registered-nurses.htm#tab-5
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Nurse Practitioners. https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes291171.htm