How to Become an Oncology Nurse

Learn about the unique and specialized knowledge needed to be an oncology nurse

Nurse with an oncology patient

Oncology nursing is a specialized field within nursing that focuses on providing care to patients diagnosed with cancer. Oncology nurses play a vital role in the comprehensive care of cancer patients throughout their treatment journey, from diagnosis to survivorship or end-of-life care. They work collaboratively with other healthcare professionals, including oncologists, surgeons, radiation therapists, and social workers, to ensure patients receive the best possible care and support.

The field of oncology nursing is significant in cancer care because of the specialized knowledge and skills needed for different types of cancer, treatment options, such as chemotherapy, radiation therapy, immunotherapy, and the potential side effects and complications associated with these treatments. Oncology nurses provide support and advocacy, symptom management, quality of life interventions, and patient and family education, which promotes health literacy and empowers patients to actively participate in their own care.

The need for oncology nurses is growing due to several factors, including the aging population, advances in cancer treatments, and the increasing complexity of cancer care. As more individuals are diagnosed with cancer, the demand for specialized oncology nursing expertise continues to rise. Oncology nurses have a direct impact on improving patient outcomes by providing personalized care, coordinating multidisciplinary teams, ensuring safe administration of treatments, and promoting evidence-based practice. Their presence throughout the cancer journey fosters trust, enhances patient satisfaction, and contributes to better treatment adherence and overall well-being.

Learn more about how to become a Registered Nurse and explore different types of nursing jobs and the education, training, and certifications required to perform these jobs.

Oncology Nurse Definition

What is an Oncology Nurse?

Oncology nursing is a specialized field within nursing that focuses on providing specialized care to individuals diagnosed with cancer. Oncology nurses have in-depth knowledge of cancer types, treatments, and the physical and emotional impact of the disease. They play a crucial role in supporting and caring for patients throughout various stages of cancer treatment, from diagnosis to survivorship or end-of-life care. The significance of oncology nursing in various stages of cancer treatment lies in the specialized knowledge, skills, and holistic care they provide. Oncology nurses serve as advocates, educators, and caregivers, supporting patients physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Compassionate and holistic care is of particular importance in oncology nursing practice because cancer diagnosis and treatment can have a profound impact on a patient’s physical and emotional well-being. Oncology nurses create a therapeutic relationship with patients, fostering trust and promoting open communication. By acknowledging patients’ fears, concerns, and individual needs, oncology nurses help patients navigate the complexities of cancer care with dignity and respect.

Oncology Nurse: Job Description

What Does an Oncology Nurse Do?

The role of oncology nurses in providing specialized care to cancer patients includes the initial assessment and diagnosis process, treatment planning, coordination, and administration of treatments. In addition, they engage in symptom management, patient and family education, and survivorship and end-of-life care. By performing thorough assessments, closely monitoring patients, and maintaining accurate documentation, oncology nurses contribute to safe, effective, and patient-centered care. These practices facilitate communication, continuity of care, and the overall improvement of patient outcomes.

Oncology Nurse Duties

Here are some of the day-to-day responsibilities of an oncology nurse:

  • Assessing and monitoring patients’ physical and emotional well-being
  • Administering chemotherapy, immunotherapy, and other cancer treatments
  • Educating patients and their families about cancer, treatment options, and self-care practices
  • Managing and alleviating symptoms and side effects of cancer and its treatments
  • Providing pain management and ensuring adequate pain control
  • Assisting in radiation therapy sessions and supporting patients during treatment
  • Collaborating with the healthcare team to develop individualized care plans
  • Monitoring patients’ vital signs, laboratory results, and treatment response
  • Documenting patient assessments, interventions, and treatment outcomes
  • Supporting patients and their families through emotional and psychosocial challenges
  • Facilitating communication and coordination between various healthcare professionals
  • Assisting in end-of-life care and providing palliative care support
  • Participating in research, clinical trials, and advancements in oncology nursing practice
  • Continuously updating knowledge and skills through professional development

Nurse touching the hand of a patient

Oncology Nurse Skills

There are a multitude of skills and qualities that are essential for success in oncology nursing. Some of the most critical skills include:

Comprehensive knowledge of oncology: Oncology nurses should have a strong foundation in cancer biology, treatment modalities, and symptom management. They should stay updated with the latest research and advancements in the field.

Critical thinking and problem-solving: Oncology nurses encounter complex patient situations that require critical thinking and problem-solving skills. They must be able to assess patient conditions, identify potential complications, and develop appropriate interventions to address them.

Emotional resilience: Dealing with cancer patients and their families can be emotionally challenging. Oncology nurses need to be emotionally resilient to provide compassionate and empathetic care while managing their own emotional well-being.

Communication skills: Nurses need to convey complex medical information in a clear and empathetic manner, listen attentively to patients’ concerns, and collaborate with the healthcare team to ensure coordinated care. Clear communication also helps patients make informed decisions about their treatment and self-care practices. Empathy fosters a compassionate and therapeutic nurse-patient relationship, which enhances patient satisfaction and outcomes.

Attention to detail and accuracy: Oncology nurses must pay close attention to detail and maintain accuracy in medication administration, documentation, and treatment protocols to ensure patient safety.

Ongoing learning and professional development are essential for oncology nurses to stay updated with the latest advancements in the field and ensure that their skill levels match the ongoing research and innovation in the field of oncology. Oncology nursing is a rapidly evolving field with new treatment modalities, research findings, and evidence-based practices emerging regularly. Ongoing learning also promotes critical thinking, problem-solving, and innovation in oncology nursing practice. It allows nurses to adapt to changes in patient needs, technology, and healthcare policies.

Where Do Oncology Nurses Work?

Many oncology nurses work in hospitals, particularly in specialized oncology units or departments. They provide direct patient care, administer treatments, monitor patients’ conditions, and collaborate with the multidisciplinary team. They can also work in cancer centers, which focus specifically on cancer diagnosis, treatment, and supportive care, outpatient clinics, which provide follow-up care, chemotherapy administration, symptom management, and supportive services, and also hospice care settings, where they provide end-of-life care and support to patients with advanced cancer. In this setting, nurses focus on managing symptoms, providing comfort measures, and supporting patients and their families during the final stages of life.

There are numerous career opportunities for oncology nurses, including pediatric oncology, which focuses on caring for children and adolescents with cancer. They can also specialize in areas such as radiation oncology, surgical oncology, or bone marrow transplantation, where they gain expertise in specific treatment modalities. Other paths may include research and clinical trials that advance the field of oncology through evidence-based practice and innovation, leadership or management roles such as nurse managers, nurse educators, or nurse coordinators—overseeing oncology departments or programs and playing a key role in shaping the delivery of oncology care, or education and consultation roles to guide healthcare organizations in providing high-quality oncology care.

It’s worth noting that continuing education, certification, and specialization in oncology nursing can further expand career opportunities and open doors to advanced practice roles, such as oncology nurse practitioners or clinical nurse specialists, who can provide more advanced and specialized care to cancer patients.

Group of medical students in a hallway

Oncology Nurse Schooling & Certification

How Long Does it Take to Become an Oncology Nurse?

What Degree Do You Need to Be an Oncology Nurse?

It is important for palliative care nurses to have a solid foundation in nursing practice and theory before pursuing specialized training in oncology care.

Earn a nursing degree
To become a palliative care nurse, one must first complete a nursing program and earn a nursing degree, either an associate degree in nursing (ADN), which can be completed in two years, or a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree, which is usually completed in four years.

For RNs with an associate degree who wish to advance their careers by earning a BSN degree, Eagle Gate College offers an RN-to-BSN program, which provides RNs with the necessary knowledge and skills to seek management positions, higher salaries, and leadership roles within the nursing field.

Get licensed as an RN:
In order to work as a registered nurse (RN), individuals must be licensed by the state in which they wish to practice. To obtain a nursing license, individuals must typically pass the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN) and meet other state-specific requirements.

Get clinical experience
Once newly licensed nurses have gained foundational nursing skills, they can transition to oncology departments or units, where they will have the opportunity to work directly with cancer patients and acquire specialized oncology nursing skills.

Additional certifications, specialization, and advanced options

Additional certifications
Pursuing additional certifications in oncology nursing is important because it validates a nurse’s knowledge and skills and demonstrates their commitment to excellence in this specialty. The Oncology Certified Nurse (OCN) certification is offered by the Oncology Nursing Certification Corporation (ONCC). It requires meeting eligibility criteria, including a specified number of hours of oncology nursing practice and passing an examination.

Specialized programs and advanced options
Nurses interested in advanced practice roles can pursue a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) or a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) with a specialization in oncology. These Oncology Nurse Practitioners, or ONPs, have advanced knowledge and can provide comprehensive care to cancer patients, including diagnosing, prescribing medications, and managing treatment plans.

Similarly, nurses can pursue a master’s or doctoral degree in nursing with a specialization as an Oncology Clinical Nurse Specialist or CNS. These specialized nurses provide expert consultation, education, and direct patient care, and they often play a role in shaping and improving oncology nursing practice.

Ongoing education and certification maintenance

The importance of ongoing education and certification maintenance for oncology nurses cannot be overstated. Oncology nursing is a dynamic field with rapid advancements in research, treatments, and evidence-based practices, and ongoing education ensures that oncology nurses can provide the best care to their patients. It demonstrates a commitment to providing safe and high-quality care to cancer patients and ensures that oncology nurses possess the necessary competencies to address the unique challenges of cancer care.

Continuing education, attending conferences, participating in workshops, and pursuing advanced certifications not only enhance the knowledge and skills of oncology nurses but also contribute to their professional development, expanded job opportunities, and the overall improvement of cancer care.

A nurse in scrubs with money in their pocket

Oncology Nurse Salary

How Much Do Oncology Nurses Make?

Although the BLS doesn’t report salary* data specifically for Palliative Care Nurses, we can refer to the data for Registered Nurses (RNs). According to the BLS, the average annual wage for RNs in the United States was about $89,000 or about $43 per hour.

Factors that may affect salary* for palliative care nurses include geographic location, level of education, and experience. Nurses in urban areas and in states with higher costs of living generally earn higher salaries. Nurses with advanced degrees or specialized certifications may also earn higher salaries, as well as those with many years of experience in the field.

Oncology Nurse Job Outlook

What is the Job Outlook for Neonatal Nurse Practitioners?

Although the BLS doesn’t report job outlook data specifically for Oncology Nurses, we can refer to the data for Registered Nurses (RNs). According to the BLS, employment of registered nurses is projected to grow 6 percent from 2021 to 2031, about as fast as the average for all occupations. This growth is due in part to an aging population and the increasing need for primary care and specialty care services, including oncology care.

The job outlook for oncology nurses is expected to align with the overall growth in the nursing profession, considering the rising incidence of cancer and the increasing need for specialized cancer care. As advancements in cancer treatments continue, there will be a growing demand for oncology nurses who can provide high-quality care to cancer patients throughout their treatment journey.

Are you interested in making a difference in the lives of cancer patients?

In this article, we have discussed the career path of becoming an oncology nurse, including their primary duties and responsibilities, the necessary education and certification requirements, potential career opportunities, and the job outlook for this profession. Oncology nursing provides nurses with a unique opportunity to build relationships with patients and families over time, and while it can be taxing both professionally and emotionally, it also offers tremendous rewards, including the chance to positively and profoundly impact the lives of individuals affected by cancer.

To get started on the path to becoming a Palliative Care Nurse, explore the BSN Program at Eagle Gate College. Or, if you already work as an RN with an associate degree, consider our RN-to-BSN Program to advance your career opportunities.