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How to Become an Oncology Nurse

By Ajoke Aminu

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Are you curious about what makes an oncology nurse special? In the battle against cancer, oncology nurses are a primary source of care and compassion for patients. They can turn the challenges of cancer into a journey of hope. In today’s guide, we’ll be focusing on how to become an oncology nurse as well as providing you an insight into basic information and procedures— like the skills you should have, the certifications you need, and the pay you’ll get. 

Career Summary

Oncology Nurse Salary

Oncology Nurse Salary

Oncology nurses often need to hone their communication and emphatic skills to the best of their ability to help comfort cancer patient successfully. Let’s take a look into how much they get paid to go that far.

According to a report, the trajectory of the average oncology nurse salary includes:

  • Entry (US$79K)
  • Median (US$98K)
  • Senior (US$121K)

Clearly, the oncology nurse salary can be considered high income compared to the average salary in the US which was reported to be $61,900.

What does an Oncology Nurse do? 

Oncology nurses are caring experts who help people fight cancer by giving them the best care and support they can get. While guiding patients through tough treatments, they offer a comforting hand and make sure no one faces the challenges of cancer alone. The oncology nurse duties are characterized by a delicate balance between technical expertise and compassionate care, making a significant impact on the lives of those affected by cancer. Essentially, they’re the compassionate backbone for those battling cancer. 

Oncology Nurse Career Progression

  • Staff Oncology Nurse: Delivers direct care to cancer patients, administering treatments, managing side effects, and providing emotional support.
  • Charge Oncology Nurse: Assumes a leadership role, coordinating patient care in the oncology department, overseeing nursing staff, and ensuring smooth operations.
  • Oncology Clinical Nurse Specialist: Specializes in a specific aspect of oncology nursing, offering advanced clinical expertise, educating staff, and contributing to research in cancer care.
  • Oncology Nurse Practitioner (NP) or Physician Assistant (PA): An advanced practice professional in oncology, involved in diagnosis, treatment planning, and collaborating with the healthcare team.
  • Director of Oncology Nursing: Takes on a managerial role, overseeing the oncology nursing department, developing policies, and ensuring high standards of patient care.
  • Chief Nursing Officer (CNO) in Oncology: The highest-ranking nursing executive in oncology, responsible for strategic leadership, quality improvement initiatives, and shaping the overall direction of oncology nursing within a healthcare organization.
Oncology Nurse Career Progression

Merits of Working as an Oncology Nurse

  • Find personal fulfillment in supporting cancer patients.
  • Hone diverse skills in treatment and emotional support. 
  • Learn and grow more in the field of oncology.
  • Better your collaboration skills while working alongside the healthcare team.
  • Stay at the forefront of evolving treatments.
  • Receive gratitude for the invaluable role in a patient’s journey.

Challenges to Expect as an Oncology Nurse

  • Emotional toll while facing patient outcomes.
  • A demanding workload balancing patient care and administrative tasks.
  • Strain on your emotional well-being from repeated empathizing.
  • Engaging in difficult conversations like end-of-life care and decisions.
  • Juggling demanding schedules and irregular hours.

Basic Skills to Hone as an Oncology Nurse

  • Proficiency in administering cancer treatments and managing associated side effects.
  • Ability to provide emotional support and trusting relationships.
  • Ability to manage high-stress situations and emergency scenarios effectively.
  • Strong analytical skills for assessing patient conditions
  • Be capable of communicating treatment plans and medical information effectively.

Popular Specialties for Oncology Nurses

  • Hematology-Oncology Nursing
  • Radiation Oncology Nursing
  • Pediatric Oncology Nursing 
  • Surgical Oncology Nursing
  • Palliative and Hospice Care Nursing
  • Genetic Counseling in Oncology

How to Become an Oncology Nurse

Oncology Nurse 5 Steps to Career

Ultimately, what an oncology nurse should care about the most is how to care for various cancer patients and more ways to provide emotional and mental support for them. If you see yourself attuned to this healthcare role, keep reading! 

In this section, we’ll explore the basic steps you’ll need to take to become an oncology nurse. The field of oncology requires a lot of specialized knowledge therefore nurses need to be well educated and trained to successfully perform excellently in healthcare institutions. That leads us to the first basic step on how to become an oncology nurse.

Education — Get a Degree in Nursing.

If you don’t attain proper education in nursing, you can’t thoroughly answer the question “What does an oncology nurse do?” The first path to becoming an expert who can effectively do oncology nurse duties is going to a nursing school to earn a degree. 

What Degree Do I Need to Become an Oncology Nurse?

There are at most three types of nursing degrees you can attain if you’re pursuing a career path in oncology nursing. However, you typically need just one of them on a normal basis. We’ll highlight these degrees and the importance of getting them.

The most common path to chasing an oncology nursing career is starting with a:

  • Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN): The BSN degree, or Bachelor of Science in Nursing, is a four-year undergraduate program that offers a comprehensive education in nursing, encompassing general education, core nursing courses, and clinical experiences. It provides a broad foundation for nursing practice and can enhance career opportunities, especially in specialized areas like oncology nursing.
  • Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) Degree: The Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) is a graduate-level degree that provides advanced education and training for registered nurses (RNs), allowing them to specialize in areas such as advanced practice, leadership, education, or research. It is typically pursued after completing a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN). It offers various specializations, including roles like Nurse Practitioner (NP), Clinical Nurse Specialist (CNS), and more, depending on career goals. 

While the above degrees alone are enough to apply for nursing roles in oncology, you can also start your nursing education with an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) Degree. ADN holders can also apply for nursing roles in oncology but will need to attain higher levels of education like BSN and MSN if they wish to upscale or advance their careers.

If you have the passion to become an oncology nurse, then we’ll advise you to not only attain the ADN degree (which is mostly done at earlier stages) but also strive to attain BSN and MSN degrees too. Interestingly, MSN holders are among the highest-paid medical professionals, so it’s a ticket to your nursing dream and a comfortable life.

How long does it take to get a Nursing Degree?

Earning a nursing degree is a dynamic process influenced by various factors, including the type of program pursued and the level of education targeted. The timeframe for obtaining a nursing degree can vary from one individual to another, depending on several key factors.

  • Types of Nursing Degrees: The first factor impacting the timeframe is the type of nursing degree sought. The two primary entry points into nursing are the Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) and the Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN). ADN programs typically take about two years to complete, while BSN programs typically span four years. Individuals choosing a BSN may also opt for accelerated programs designed for individuals with prior non-nursing degrees, which can be completed in a condensed time frame, often 12 to 18 months.
  • Educational Pathways: The educational pathway chosen significantly influences the duration of the nursing degree. Traditional, full-time programs tend to adhere to the standard completion timelines. However, part-time and online programs offer flexibility for those managing work or family responsibilities, allowing students to extend the timeframe to accommodate their schedules.
  • Advanced Degrees: For those aspiring to advanced practice roles, such as becoming a Nurse Practitioner (NP) or Clinical Nurse Specialist (CNS), additional education is required. Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) programs generally takes around two years to complete, and Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) programs may add another two to four years, depending on the program structure and whether pursued on a full-time or part-time basis.
  • Bridge Programs: Individuals with an ADN who wish to further their education often choose to enroll in bridge programs. These programs allow for the seamless transition from an ADN to a BSN, and some may even provide a direct path to a Master’s degree. Bridge programs typically range from one to two years, depending on the specific program and the academic background of the student.
  • Licensing Examination: After completing the nursing degree program, individuals must successfully pass the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN) to obtain licensure as a registered nurse. The preparation for and completion of the NCLEX-RN can impact the overall time frame for officially becoming a practicing nurse.
  • Career Specialization: If an individual wishes to specialize in a particular area, such as oncology nursing, additional training and experience may be necessary. This can extend the timeframe for achieving proficiency in the chosen specialty.

Essentially, finishing a nursing degree depends on the specialty you’re aiming for, the level your goal is aimed at, and your program structure. However, on average, the time you need is somewhere around 3-5 years to attain a certified nursing degree

How much does it cost to obtain a Nursing Degree?

The cost of obtaining a nursing degree can vary significantly based on several factors, including the type of program, the institution, the location, and whether the student is attending a public or private institution. 

Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN)  programs, typically offered by community colleges, are generally more affordable than other options. Tuition costs for a two-year ADN program can range from US$12,000 to a little above US$30,000, depending on the institution. Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN), often provided by universities and colleges, may have higher tuition costs. Four-year BSN programs can range from US$40,000 to US$100,000 or more, depending on whether it is a public or private institution. Accelerated programs, designed for individuals with a non-nursing degree, can be more expensive due to their condensed nature. Tuition may fall in the range of US$50,000 to US$100,000.

Public institutions typically have lower tuition costs for in-state residents compared to private institutions. Private institutions often have higher tuition rates, ranging from US$20,000 to US$50,000 per year or more. Beyond tuition, students should consider additional fees such as laboratory fees, clinical fees, and technology fees, which can contribute to the overall cost.

For students residing on campus or in off-campus housing, room and board costs can significantly contribute to the total expense. This can range from US$8,000 to US$15,000 or more per academic year, depending on the location and housing type. 

Get Licensed 

Becoming an oncology nurse involves a comprehensive licensing process and opportunities for specialized certifications to ensure proficiency in providing high-quality care to individuals battling cancer. 

The foundational step in this journey is obtaining a registered nurse (RN) license, an essential credential for nursing practice. This typically involves completing an accredited nursing program, whether an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) or a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN), and successfully passing the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN).

While the RN license is fundamental, aspiring oncology nurses often pursue additional certifications to demonstrate their commitment to specialized knowledge and excellence in cancer care.

The Oncology Nursing Certification Corporation (ONCC) offers a range of certifications tailored to different aspects of oncology nursing. For those working with pediatric cancer patients, the Certified Pediatric Hematology Oncology Nurse (CPHON) certification is available. Adult oncology nurses may pursue the Certified Oncology Nurse (OCN) certification. These certifications require a combination of clinical experience and successful completion of a certification exam. 

While these certifications are not mandatory, they serve as valuable assets, contributing to a nurse’s expertise and elevating the standard of care provided to individuals navigating the complexities of cancer treatment. In all healthcare settings, more certifications basically equals a higher footing and salary.

Hone the Essential Skills for Oncology Nursing

Mastering a diverse set of essential skills is paramount for those pursuing a career in oncology nursing, as it involves providing specialized care to individuals facing the challenges of cancer. If you can hone these skills to perform, oncology nursing duties would be a breeze.

  • Clinical Competence: Oncology nurses must develop a high level of clinical competence to administer cancer treatments such as chemotherapy, immunotherapy, and radiation therapy. This includes precise medication administration, managing potential side effects, and monitoring patients for any adverse reactions. 
  • Communication Skills: Effective communication is central to oncology nursing. Nurses need to convey complex medical information to patients and their families with clarity and empathy. They play a vital role in facilitating discussions about diagnosis, treatment options, and end-of-life care, requiring sensitivity and excellent interpersonal communication skills. 
  • Compassionate Care: Compassion is at the heart of oncology nursing. Nurses in this field must provide not only physical care but also emotional support to patients and their families. Developing a compassionate and empathetic approach is essential for addressing the emotional challenges associated with a cancer diagnosis and treatment. 
  • Critical Thinking: Oncology nurses encounter dynamic and often unpredictable situations. The ability to think critically and make swift, informed decisions is crucial. Nurses must assess patient conditions, anticipate potential complications, and adapt care plans accordingly, ensuring the best possible outcomes. 
  • Team Collaboration: Collaboration within a multidisciplinary healthcare team is integral to oncology nursing. Nurses work closely with oncologists, surgeons, social workers, and other healthcare professionals. Effective collaboration ensures comprehensive patient care and a holistic approach to addressing the various aspects of cancer treatment.
  • Patient Advocacy: Oncology nurses serve as advocates for their patients, ensuring that they receive the best possible care within the healthcare system. Advocacy involves empowering patients to make informed decisions, navigating the complexities of healthcare, and ensuring their voices are heard throughout their cancer journey.
  • Attention to Detail: Oncology nursing demands meticulous attention to detail, particularly during the administration of treatments and monitoring patient responses. Nurses must accurately document patient information, track treatment progress, and promptly address any changes in the patient’s condition.
  • Adaptability: The field of oncology is continually evolving with advancements in treatments and care modalities. Oncology nurses must be adaptable, staying informed about emerging therapies, technologies, and protocols. This adaptability ensures that nurses provide the most up-to-date and effective care to their patients.
  • Crisis Management: Oncology nurses often encounter high-stress situations, particularly during emergencies or critical phases of treatment. Developing crisis management skills enables nurses to stay calm under pressure, make quick decisions, and provide effective care during challenging circumstances.
  • Cultural Competence: Cancer affects individuals from diverse backgrounds, each with unique cultural perspectives and beliefs. Cultural competence is vital for oncology nurses to provide patient-centered care that respects and considers the cultural nuances of each individual.
  • Continued Learning: The field of oncology nursing is dynamic, requiring a commitment to continuous learning. Staying updated on the latest research, treatment modalities, and best practices through ongoing education ensures that nurses provide cutting-edge care to their patients.
  • End-of-Life Care Skills: Oncology nurses often engage in end-of-life care discussions and support for patients and their families. Developing skills in providing comfort, facilitating difficult conversations, and ensuring dignity in end-of-life care is crucial for comprehensive oncology nursing practice.

Can I Master Oncology Nursing Skills Online?

While practical real-life experience is where you can quickly get used to and test your oncology nursing skills, you can undoubtedly master them online. Mastering oncology nursing skills requires a commitment to continuous learning and staying informed. Fortunately, there are various online resources that offer educational materials, courses, and tools tailored to oncology nursing.

Here are some valuable online resources to enhance and master oncology nursing skills:

  • Oncology Nursing Society: The ONS provides a wealth of resources, including webinars, articles, and clinical practice guidelines. Membership offers access to exclusive content and networking opportunities within the oncology nursing community.
  • Cancer Training at NCI: NCI offers a variety of training resources, including webinars, workshops, and online courses covering various aspects of oncology care and research.
  • ASCO eLearning: ASCO provides eLearning resources, including courses, webinars, and virtual meetings covering clinical oncology topics. It is a valuable platform for staying abreast of advancements in cancer care.
  • Oncology Nursing Courses: They offer a selection of online courses specific to oncology nursing. These courses cover various aspects of cancer care, from symptom management to psychosocial support. 

Bridge Theory and Practice With Clinical Experience

Entering into the work-life of oncology nursing without gaining hands-on experience is definitely not something you’d be allowed to do in any healthcare facility. So before going to the frontlines, you need to prepare yourself and make sure you have a perfect idea of oncology nurse duties and how to do them. 

Oncology Nurse Popular Career Specialties

What Opportunities Are Available for an Oncology Nurse to Gain Practical Experience?

You’ll need to partake in real-life clinical experience by either taking up roles as an assistant or intern.

You can do this in any healthcare setting suited to your specialty like: 

  • Nursing School Clinical Rotations: Many nursing schools incorporate oncology clinical rotations into their curriculum. During these rotations, students work directly in oncology units, gaining first-hand experience in administering treatments, managing side effects, and engaging with cancer patients. This structured exposure forms a foundational element of oncology nursing education.
  • Internships in Oncology Units: Seeking internships in oncology units within hospitals or specialized cancer centers provides focused clinical experiences. These internships often involve comprehensive training in chemotherapy administration, patient education, and collaboration with multidisciplinary teams. Some institutions offer structured oncology nursing internship programs designed to bridge the gap between academic learning and real-world practice.
  • Volunteering in Oncology Settings: Volunteering in oncology settings allows individuals to observe and engage with the field without the formal commitment of an internship. While volunteers may not perform clinical tasks, they can provide valuable support to patients, families, and the healthcare team. This immersive experience offers a unique perspective on the challenges and rewards of oncology nursing.
  • Nurse Extern Programs: Some healthcare institutions offer nurse extern programs designed for nursing students. These programs provide opportunities for hands-on experiences in various nursing specialties, including oncology. Participants work alongside registered nurses, gaining exposure to direct patient care and contributing to the overall functioning of the oncology unit.
  • Oncology Certification Courses: Participating in oncology certification courses, such as those offered by reputable organizations, can provide targeted clinical experience. These courses often include practical components where participants apply their knowledge in simulated or real clinical settings. Additionally, successful completion of such courses can enhance a nurse’s credentials in the oncology nursing field.
  • Continuing Education Workshops: Attending continuing education workshops focused on oncology nursing offers a platform for nurses to acquire specific clinical skills and stay updated on the latest advancements. Workshops may include hands-on training sessions, allowing participants to practice procedures and interventions under the guidance of experienced oncology nurses.
  • Research Opportunities in Oncology: Engaging in research initiatives within oncology settings provides a unique avenue for hands-on experience. Nurses involved in research projects contribute to data collection, analysis, and the implementation of evidence-based practices. This exposure enhances both clinical and research-oriented skills.
  • Shadowing Experienced Oncology Nurses: Shadowing experienced oncology nurses is an informal yet highly informative way to gain clinical insights. Shadowing experiences allow individuals to observe the daily routines, patient interactions, and specialized procedures performed by seasoned oncology nursing professionals. This helps to figure out what you need to improve.
  • Professional Networking and Conferences: Attending oncology nursing conferences and networking events can open doors to clinical opportunities. Interacting with professionals in the field may lead to invitations for observational experiences, preceptorships, or collaborative initiatives where clinical skills can be refined.

What is the Work-Life Balance of an Oncology Nurse Like?

Working as an oncology nurse means being there for people facing tough times due to cancer, anytime and any day. It’s not always easy, and the balance between work and life can get tricky. But you can still have a pretty smooth work/life balance if you’re determined.

Take this guide with you:

Work-Life Balance Insights

  • Unpredictable Schedule: Shifts might not always follow the usual 9-to-5, and weekends could be part of the plan.
  • Emotional Challenges: Dealing with cancer can be emotional, and that might weigh on you at times.
  • Support Matters: A good work environment and supportive colleagues can make a huge difference.

Tips for Keeping a Healthy Balance

  • Take Breaks Seriously: Don’t skip breaks. They’re not just for the body; they’re for your mind too.
  • Find Ways to De-stress: Whether it’s a quick walk, deep breaths, or talking to a friend, find what helps you unwind.
  • Share Your Feelings: It’s okay to talk about the tough stuff. Sharing feelings with colleagues or friends can be a big relief.
  • Learn to Say No: It’s alright to decline extra work when you need a breather.
  • Celebrate Your Wins: Recognize and celebrate the good moments. It’s important to acknowledge your positive impact.

Remember, finding the right balance takes time, but it’s worth the effort. In a nutshell, “being kind to yourself is a big part of being a great oncology nurse”.

What’s the Career Outlook for Oncology Nursing?

Nursing jobs in general are growing faster than many others, creating about 193,100 new jobs each year, according to the U.S. BLS. This is because more older people needing healthcare will create a higher demand for nurses. Moreover, cancerous cells are more likely with old age so, oncology nurses are more or less never insignificant.

Oncology nurses will be needed in hospitals, outpatient centers, and places where people prefer to get care, like at home or in care facilities. The increase is also because some nurses will leave their jobs, creating openings for new nurses. This is a good opportunity for those who want to become oncology nurses amongst others. 

What are the Employment Opportunities for Oncology Nurses?

Oncology nurses have a range of job opportunities across various healthcare settings.

Here’s a glimpse into the diverse career paths available for those specializing in oncology nursing:

  • Inpatient Oncology Units: Nurses provide direct care to patients undergoing cancer treatments, managing symptoms, and supporting recovery.
  • Outpatient Oncology Clinics: Nurses assist with chemotherapy administration, monitor patients, and offer education and support.
  • Specialized Cancer Hospitals: Dedicated cancer centers often have specialized oncology nursing roles focusing exclusively on cancer care.
  • Physician Offices: Oncology nurses work alongside oncologists in private practices, offering patient care and support.
  • Research Institutions: Nurses contribute to cancer research by participating in clinical trials, collecting data, and implementing evidence-based practices.
  • Home Infusion Services: Nurses provide cancer treatments at patients’ homes, offering a more personalized care setting.
  • End-of-Life Care Facilities: Oncology nurses in hospice settings focus on providing comfort and support to patients and their families during the final stages of life.
  • Nursing Schools and Training Programs: Experienced oncology nurses may become educators, training the next generation of nurses.
  • Nurse Managers and Directors: Experienced oncology nurses can take on leadership roles, overseeing oncology units or entire healthcare departments.
  • Nonprofit Organizations: Nurses may work for cancer-focused nonprofits, providing community outreach, education, and support services.
  • Telemedicine Companies: With the rise of telehealth, oncology nurses may provide remote consultations, monitoring, and support to cancer patients.
  • Public Health Departments: Oncology nurses contribute to public health initiatives, focusing on cancer prevention, education, and community health.
  • Pharmaceutical Companies: Nurses may work in roles related to pharmaceuticals, providing education and support for cancer treatment drugs.
  • International Aid Organizations: Nurses contribute to global health efforts by providing oncology care in underserved communities worldwide.
  • Cancer Survivorship Programs: Oncology nurses support cancer survivors through wellness programs, addressing post-treatment challenges and promoting overall well-being.

Should I Become an Oncology Nurse?

In the end, the decision to become an Oncology nurse is deeply personal. If the thought of providing compassionate care to individuals facing the challenges of cancer resonates with you, then pursuing a career in Oncology nursing could be a rewarding choice. 

Remember, it’s not just a job – it’s a vital role in supporting patients during some of their most challenging moments. As an Oncology nurse, you become a source of comfort, a provider of knowledge, and a crucial part of the healthcare journey for those in need.

So, should you become an oncology nurse? Being a guiding light in the lives of cancer patients can be inspiring but as long as you’re ready to embrace both the emotional and clinical aspects of this field, then the answer may well be a resounding “yes.” Just be ready to dedicate yourself to making a difference, one patient at a time.

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Ajoke Aminu

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