Careers in Nursing: What Is an Oncology Nurse?
An oncology nurse works with patients who have been diagnosed with cancer. Oncology nurses assess and treat patients who are facing complex medical problems and provide support to them and their families as they battle through physical health consequences of disease and treatment as well as emotional fatigue. Cancer impacts individuals across the lifespan, oncology nurses may specialize further in the pediatric oncology population.
Oncology nurses are caring individuals who form meaningful bonds with the people they care for during these stressful life events.
Highly trained and offering specialized skills, oncology nurses are often found in most hospitals and clinics around the world. If you’re interested in becoming a valuable asset within the healthcare industry while also making a real impact on people’s lives, read on to discover the path toward becoming an oncology nurse.
What Is Oncology Nursing?
Oncology nursing is a specialized field in which nurses work specifically with patients who are currently or recently under treatment for cancer. They help to manage symptoms caused by the cancerous disease and side effects of treatment. Additionally, oncology nurses strive to improve quality of life for patients. More than ever before, the route from diagnosis and treatment to survivor is becoming more achievable—and oncology nurses play a major part in the treatment of and recovery from cancer.
Oncology nurses also help patients who don’t fully recover from their cancer, but instead live with the chronic condition. Pain management and improving quality of life are major goals of care. In some cases, oncology nurses care for patients as they enter the end stages of the disease, helping them feel as comfortable as possible and providing emotional support.
Overall, oncology nurses work in a varied healthcare environment with many different patient demographics.
What Does an Oncology Nurse Do on a Daily Basis?
The field of oncology is continually developing with new advancements in technology and medicine. Along with those changes come dynamic changes in oncology nursing. These days, some of the most common job requirements of an oncology nurse include:
Assessing patient needs
Administering chemotherapy and pain medications
Managing chemotherapy side effects
Assisting in radiation treatments
Monitoring for disease progression
Assessing for changes in overall health and updating patient records accordingly
Developing symptom management strategies
Educating patients and families about what to expect during treatment
Helping combat stress, anxiety, and uncertainty
Coordinating care from an interdisciplinary team
Where Does an Oncology Nurse Work?
Oncology nurses often work within a dedicated oncology unit that is part of a larger hospital or clinic. Some oncology nurses work in specialty hospitals that focus solely on cancer diagnoses and treatments. A smaller number of oncology nurses provide home health care for people living with cancer.
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 their family and caregivers.
Education Requirements for Becoming an Oncology Nurse
Every oncology nurse is a registered nurse (RN), so to enter this field, you first have to learn the foundations of nursing. Although some RNs have an associate degree, it is better to earn a four-year Bachelor’s of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree if you want to enter a specialized career like oncology nursing and have career advancement opportunities.
A BSN program will prepare entry-level nurses with foundational knowledge about the field as a whole. Topics covered in this type of nursing program will include medical surgical nursing, pain management, patient advocacy, and prioritization of care. Medical surgical nurses courses, in particular, will provide vital training for the care of medical procedures and diseases, including cancer. This is why it’s important for future oncology nurses to obtain their bachelor’s degree prior to advancing their career in this direction.
Once you’ve completed your degree program and before you can start your nursing practice, you will have to pass a licensing exam to become an RN. The National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX) is the test administered in the United States to individuals who have graduated from an accredited professional nursing program and it is required for licensure in all 50 states and DC.
Clinical Experience and Certifications
Once you’ve passed the NCLEX and obtained your license from the state, you can work professionally as a registered nurse. Some individuals might seek an oncology position directly out of college, while others may choose to gain medical-surgical nursing experience before applying as an oncology nurse. Both routes are perfectly viable in terms of gaining experience and advancing your career in this field.
After some time in that position, you can earn a certification in the field of oncology nursing that demonstrates your level of training and experience, which will help with career advancement in your nursing practice. Whichever route you decide to take, the next step to becoming an oncology nurse will be certification. Earning a certificate in the field of oncology nursing will better demonstrate your level of training and experience, and ultimately help with career advancement in your nursing practice.
The Oncology Nursing Certification Corporation provides a number of specialized certifications to nurses who demonstrate the proper experience. These include:
Oncology Certified Nurse (OCN) – After 1,000 clinical hours of work in the oncology nursing field, at least one full year as an RN, and 10 contact hours of oncology nursing education experience, eligible nurses can take the OCN exam. After passing this exam, you’ll have a valid OCN certification for 4 years before needing renewal.
Chemotherapy Biotherapy Certificate – Oncology nurses who administer chemotherapy as part of their daily routine for cancer treatment can use their expertise to earn this certification. Requirements include administering chemotherapy for at least one year and at least once per month within that time span.
Oncology Nurse Salary
The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics tracks salaries for RNs in general, but not oncology nurses in particular. In 2019, the median annual income for RNs was $73,300. However, oncology nurses have the potential to earn as much as six figures or higher.
To maximize your earning potential, opt for a bachelor’s degree over an associate’s degree and obtain as many professional certifications as you can. As with other fields, oncology nursing salaries are also dependent on a number of other factors, such as:
Your years of experience
Your geographical location
The type of facility in which you work
Your hours (working night and holiday shifts for extra pay)
In addition to their salaries, oncology nurses are typically compensated in other ways such as a benefits package, paid days off, continuing education credit, or tuition reimbursement. All of these contribute to the high earning potential in the oncology nursing field.
Nurses who work in one of the following highest-paying states can maximize their earnings:
Career Outlook for Oncology Nurses
As a whole, the field of nursing is expected to grow 7 percent by 2029, which is a faster rate of growth than the average industry. As the older generation of nurses begins to retire, there will be ample openings for younger nurses.
Oncology nurses, in particular, will continue to be in high demand. According to the National Cancer Institute, in 2020 it was estimated that more than 1.8 million people were diagnosed with cancer in the United States. Because cancer is one of the leading causes of death, and because it affects people across all ages, oncology nurses are an invaluable part of the healthcare system.
Personality Traits of a Successful Oncology Nurse
Nursing programs and on-the-job training are crucial for success in the field of oncology nursing, but so are the following character skills:
Patience – Because one of the key components of oncology nursing is educating patients and their families, successful oncology nurses know how to be patient when dealing with emotionally fatigued individuals who are experiencing cancer or supporting a loved one through their cancer diagnosis.
Focus and mindful observation – Oncology nurses are responsible for monitoring patient health during procedures, cancer treatment, and down time as well. Small changes in a patient’s health can be a vital signal that medical attention is needed.
Emotional fortitude – Working with patients undergoing cancer treatment on a daily basis can be a challenge for some, but oncology nurses are resilient. Successful oncology nurses set an example of strength, reserve, and stability during an emotionally turbulent experience. This is why it’s crucial for oncology nurses to prioritize self care in their daily lives—by supporting themselves, they can fully care for their patients.
Positive and friendly demeanor – Although an oncology nurse’s primary responsibilities are medical in nature, those who thrive in the position are able to form meaningful bonds with patients and their families by providing a warm and positive attitude.
Start Your Nursing Career Today
If you think you’re a good fit for a career in oncology nursing, you can get started right away. With a distance learning program, you can study at a top-tier and fully-accredited online program to become an RN without the daily commute of in-person classes. With remote learning and flexible class scheduling, you can advance your career from the comfort of your own home, with the only in-person commitment being the required clinical hours. Clinical placement services are also available to help students find local facilities and cut down on travel time. Once you graduate with an ABSN degree, you’re fully eligible to take the licensing exam and become a Registered Nurse.
While you’re working on your degree, you can find your passion and your specialty in nursing. Students can focus on clinical development, geriatrics, hospice, home health care, infection control, labor and delivery, and many other specializations.
If you’re ready to make your dream career a reality, find the right ABSN program for you today.
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 August 15, 2021.
Nurse. How to Become an Oncology Nurse. https://nurse.org/resources/oncology-nurse/
Registered Nursing. What is an Oncology Nurse? https://www.registerednursing.org/specialty/oncology-nurse/
NIH. Cancer Statistics. https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/understanding/statistics
BLS. Registered Nurses. https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/registered-nurses.htm
The Career Project. Steps to becoming a Oncology Nurse. https://www.thecareerproject.org/blog/steps-to-becoming-a-oncology-nurse/