What Is an Oncology Nurse and How Do You Become One?

Written by Coursera • Updated on

An oncology nurse is a registered nurse who works with cancer patients. Learn what oncology nurses do, how much they make, and what the career outlook is for this field.

[Featured Image]: An Oncology Nurse, wearing a blue uniform and has a stethoscope around her neck. She is talking to her patient, who is wearing a black and white sweater and a head covering.

An oncology nurse is a registered nurse with advanced training specializing in working with patients who have cancer and those at risk for developing cancer. Like nearly all medical careers, demand for oncology nurses is on the rise, and that trend may even continue through 2030 [1]. Oncology nurses make an average pay of around $99,003 per year [2]. 

In order to become an oncology nurse, you'll typically need a bachelor's degree in nursing as well as clinical experience.  Although it’s not strictly required, many employers prefer you to gain oncology nursing certification. It also helps to possess essential people skills, like empathy and compassion, and the ability to communicate and work with a team.

What is the oncology nurse's role?

Oncology nurses take care of cancer patients and potential cancer patients in various clinical settings. You'll work with physicians and other medical professionals to provide patients with what they need for cancer prevention, diagnosis, treatment, symptom management, and palliative care. 

While clinical care is an integral part of the job, you'll also provide companionship and emotional support for your patients. Not only will you be a key member of their support team, but you'll also find yourself advocating for your patients when communicating with their health care team and their loved ones. You'll find that you play the role of educator as well. Your patients look to you to learn everything from how to live a healthy lifestyle while undergoing cancer treatment to what complicated medical terminology means.    

As an oncology nurse, you'll do many things the average registered nurse would do, but you'll have a more specialized skill set because cancer is a unique disease. That might mean that the average dosage of a medication may be higher than it would be for someone who doesn't have cancer, or you may need to understand symptoms better as they relate to chemotherapy treatments. For this reason, extra training and experience are necessary.     

You can also choose a specialization within the field of oncology nursing. For example, if you want to work with children who have cancer, you might become a pediatric oncology nurse. Some other options include:

  • Radiation oncology

  • Surgical oncology

  • Immunotherapy

  • Genetic counseling

  • Hematology

  • Chemotherapy/infusions

  • Gynecological oncology

  • Bone marrow transplantation

  • Breast oncology  

Typical duties: What do oncology nurses do?  

Every oncology nurse will have unique duties based on where you work, your specialization, and the types of patients you work with. At any given time, your responsibilities might include:  

  • Monitoring a cancer patient's condition

  • Running various tests and evaluations

  • Managing symptoms in cancer patients

  • Administering medication to cancer patients

  • Helping to manage the side effects of treatments like chemotherapy 

  • Administering chemotherapy and other treatments like infusions 

  • Educating patients and their loved ones on a particular type of cancer, treatment options, and management plans  

  • Educating patients and their loved ones on ways to try to prevent certain types of cancers 

  • Educating patients and their loved ones on how to live a healthy lifestyle while going through cancer treatment or after cancer treatment

  • Assessing a cancer patient's mental and emotional needs

  • Helping create a plan of action for a cancer patient's care 

  • Working as an advocate for cancer patients and their loved ones  

  • Recording a patient's health history 

  • Monitoring and recording vital signs 

  • Maintaining clinical documents 

  • Caring for cancer patients after surgery 

  • Coordinating with other health care providers

Benefits and challenges of oncology nursing

Becoming an oncology nurse offers its own unique set of benefits and challenges. Cancer can be a devastating disease that may cause stress, anxiety, further illness, and even death. When a patient is facing the unknown, they need health care providers, such as oncology nurses, who are there to form relationships and offer support that will see them through their diagnosis and treatments. Providing comfort to cancer patients and their loved ones during what may be the scariest time of their lives can be rewarding, and it's one of the most significant benefits of becoming an oncology nurse. Unlike other nursing jobs where you may see a patient once or twice, you'll build relationships. 

Another benefit that many oncology nurses report is that the job helps you put life into perspective. When you see others going through a difficult time, it can help you to better appreciate what you have.  

While the emotional benefits of becoming an oncology nurse are numerous, you'll also find that it's a great way to advance your professional career.  If you are already a registered nurse or working to become one, you may eventually find that you want to advance your training and education or find a new specialty. Oncology is one option that will require you to continue learning throughout your career journey.  

Oncology nurses work in various settings, and many of them, such as infusion centers and private practices, offer a steady workweek of typical office hours with nights and weekends off. If you prefer something a little more adventurous, there's also a demand for travel oncology nurses who take assignments in various places throughout the United States. An assignment may last for about three months. 

Employment in the health care industry, including the need for nurses, is expected to rise for the foreseeable future, so job security is another benefit. With the number of cancer patients increasing in the United States each year, the need for health care professionals in the oncology field is likely to increase with them. 

The main challenge that you'll face is a demanding job, physically, mentally, and emotionally. While helping patients through some of the most challenging days of their lives is extremely rewarding to many people, it can become difficult too. Even when you have a bad day, you can't let it affect your relationship with your patients. Burnout is also common in oncology nurses. Far too many put their own needs aside to help others. You have to remember to take care of yourself too.  

Another common challenge associated with oncology nursing is paying attention to detail. You'll likely work with multiple patients at a time, which means staying on top of dozens if not hundreds of pieces of information. As with any job in health care, if you give someone the wrong dose or the wrong medication, the consequences can be severe.  

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How do you become an oncology nurse?

To become an oncology nurse, you must first become a registered nurse. You'll also need to possess specific people skills. Once you've achieved this, you can advance your career through training, education, experience, and various certifications. 

Read more: How to Become a Registered Nurse (RN)

Education (degrees and certifications)

Every oncology nurse must first start as a registered nurse. That means you'll need to earn either an associate degree (ADN) or a bachelor's degree (BSN) in nursing. Next, you'll need to take the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX) and pass it and meet any requirements set by the state in which you want to practice.  

Once you become a registered nurse, you'll need to gain some clinical experience. At least two to three years is often recommended, and the more you can work with cancer patients or within the field of oncology, the better. Not only will you gain the experience needed to advance your career, but you can also explore different specialties and find what you like best. For example, you may enjoy working with younger patients instead of adults and decide you'd like to become a pediatric oncology nurse. 

Once you have some experience, you can earn a certification from the Oncology Nursing Certification Corporation. Keep in mind that each certification has prerequisites, such as a certain amount of experience or a certain amount of hours working with oncology patients. Some even require you to have a master's degree in nursing. Most of them also require you to continue your education throughout your career. The certifications offered include:  

  • Oncology Certified Nurse (OCN): a broad certification focused on oncology nursing for adults 

  • Certified Pediatric Hematology-Oncology Nurse (CPHON): a certification focused on providing oncology nursing care for children with hematological cancers like lymphoma or leukemia

  • Certified Breast Care Nurse (CBCN): a certification that focuses on the prevention and treatment of breast cancer

  • Blood and Marrow Transplant Certified Nurse (BMTCN): a certification focused on using blood and bone marrow transplants to treat certain kinds of cancers, including hemophilia, leukemia, and some solid-tumor cancers

  • Advanced Oncology Certified Nurse Practitioner (AOCNP): a certification designed for nurse practitioners who work in general oncology

  • Advanced Oncology Certified Clinical Nurse Specialist (AOCNS): a certification for advanced oncology nurses caring for patients with advanced cancers

  • Certified Pediatric Oncology Nurse (CPON): a certification for oncology nurses with specialized knowledge of and experience in caring for children with cancer 

  • Advanced Oncology Certified Nurse (AOCN): oncology nurses with advanced experience and specialized knowledge in providing advanced-level care for adult cancer patients

Certification is not required in every state, or for all nursing job working with cancer patients. It might help make you more competitive in your field, help you earn more, and help you specialize in the area that interests you the most.   

Should you choose to advance your career as an oncology nurse even further, you might consider earning a master's degree in nursing. This can help you become an oncology nurse practitioner. Once you graduate, you'll need to pass a national exam, and you may consider getting the AOCNP certification. Oncology nurse practitioners have more advanced responsibilities in a health care setting, such as the ability to prescribe medication and provide primary care.    

People skills

Becoming an oncology nurse can be one of the most emotionally rewarding and challenging jobs in health care. It does require that you develop a particular set of people skills to take on this exciting career. Some of the most important are:  

  • Desire to work with people: You'll spend most of your time working one-on-one with patients, and you'll also interact with their loved ones and the rest of the health care team. 

  • Research-oriented: The oncology field changes constantly, and your patients and their loved ones will depend on you to answer their concerns and questions. You must enjoy learning and researching and commit yourself to do it throughout your career.  

  • Structure: Structure and compartmentalization can help you manage the stress of the job of an oncology nurse and find some work-life balance on your off days so you don't experience burnout. 

  • Detail-oriented: An eye for detail is vital in any health care job, especially when you administer medication. Oncology nurses who help with chemotherapy treatments must be very specific regarding weights and measurements.  

  • Communication: Communication is an essential aspect of most jobs that involve working with patients, but as an oncology nurse, you'll need to take it to the next level. You'll need to find ways to connect with patients emotionally and look for nonverbal signs to figure out what someone isn't telling you about their mental or physical state.  

  • Empathy: Empathy and compassion allow you to put yourself in the shoes of your patients and their loved ones and make decisions based on what you'd want for your health.   

  • Collaboration: As an oncology nurse, you're part of a team that includes your patients, their loved ones, physicians, therapists, surgeons, nursing assistants, and countless other health care workers. Working together to develop the best options for those patients can be the key to a positive outcome. 

Oncology nurse career outlook

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), all health care fields, including nursing, are expected to grow by 9 percent between 2020 and 2030 [1]. While the BLS doesn't specify between types of registered nurses, the National Cancer Institute has gathered multiple statistics that show that the number of cancer cases is expected to rise to 22.2 million by 2030, which will likely increase the need for oncology nurses [3]. 

Where do oncology nurses work?

Oncology nurses can work in various settings—essentially anywhere that treats cancer patients.  These might include:  

  • Hospitals 

  • Doctor's offices 

  • Outpatient care centers 

  • Hospice care 

  • Cancer centers

  • Academic institutions (training other nurses)

  • Infusion centers 

  • Clinics

  • Extended care facilities and nursing homes 

  • Home health care agencies 

  • Research enters 

Next steps toward a career in oncology nursing

A big part of being an oncology nurse means continuous learning about a constantly evolving field. Browsing Coursera, you'll find numerous courses on various areas of oncology that can help you do just that.

Some of the world's leading educational institutions offer each of these, such as Cancer Biology Specialization from Johns Hopkins University. This course may even help you discover a specialty within the field of oncology that you’d like to pursue.    

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Cancer Biology

Learn essential skills in cancer biology, cancer metastasis, and prostate cancer, that will enable you to develop a deeper understanding of the impact of cancer on the human body.

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Average time: 3 month(s)

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Prostate cancer, Anatomy of metastasis, Cancer treatment, Metastasis theories, Cancer Biology, Cancer, Biology, Cancer Genetics, Molecular Biology, Cancer Stem Cells

Related articles

Article sources 

1. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Registered Nurses, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/registered-nurses.htm." Accessed April 25, 2022. 

2. Glassdoor. "How Much Does an Oncology Nurse Make?, https://www.glassdoor.com/Salaries/oncology-nurse-salary-SRCH_KO0,14.htm." Accessed April 25, 2022. 

3. National Cancer Institute. "Cancer Statistics, https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/understanding/statistics." Accessed April 26, 2022.

Written by Coursera • Updated on

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