What Is an Oncology Nurse? And How to Become One

Written by Coursera Staff • Updated on

Oncology nurses are registered nurse who work with cancer patients. Learn about what oncology nurses do, how much they earn, and what you have to do to join the field.

[Featured Image] An oncology nurse wearing light blue scrubs and a stethoscope around her neck speaks with her patient, who is wearing a black and white sweater and a head covering.

An oncology nurse is a registered nurse (RN) with advanced training who specializes in working with patients who have cancer and those at risk of developing cancer. Providing a combination of medical care and emotional support, oncology nurses are critical to providing quality life-affirming care to those suffering from some of the most life-threatening conditions.

In this article, you'll learn more about oncology nurses, including what they do, earn, and how to become one yourself. At the end, you'll explore cost-effective, flexible courses that can help you gain the job-relevant skills you'll need to excel in the field.

What is an oncology nurse?

Oncology nurses are registered nurses who take care of either cancer patients or those with the potential of developing cancer. Oncology nurses work with physicians and other medical professionals to prevent, diagnose, treat, and manage cancer symptoms, as well as provide palliative care. 

In addition to administering medical care to cancer patients, oncology nurses also provide emotional support and companionship to them. In some cases, they also educate patients on cancer terminology, symptoms, and how to live a healthy lifestyle while undergoing treatment.    

There is a variety of specializations within the field of oncology nursing. Some common specializations include:

  • Pediatric oncology

  • Radiation oncology

  • Surgical oncology

  • Immunotherapy

  • Genetic counseling

  • Hematology

  • Chemotherapy/infusions

  • Gynecological oncology

  • Bone marrow transplantation

  • Breast oncology  

What do oncology nurses do?  

Every oncology nurse will have unique duties based on where they work, their specialization, and the types of patients with whom they work. 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, such as chemotherapy 

  • Administering chemotherapy and other treatments like infusions 

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

  • Assessing a cancer patient's mental and emotional needs

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

  • Advocating for cancer patients and their loved ones  

  • Recording a patient's health history, monitoring their vital signs, and maintaining clinical documents 

  • Caring for cancer patients after surgery 

  • Coordinating with other health care providers

Oncology nurse salary and job outlook

Like many other health care professionals, oncology nurses earn a higher-than-average salary and have a positive job outlook.

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), registered nurses earn a median annual salary of $77,600 a year [1]. Glassdoor, furthermore, estimates the average base pay of an oncology nurse to be $107,572 as of February 2023 [2]. Both of these pays are significantly higher than the total median annual salary for all workers in the United States, which the BLS notes was $45,760 as of May 2021 [1].

While there are no official statistics on the job outlook for oncology nurses specifically, there is likely to be increasing demand for the profession in the coming years.

According to the US BLS, for example, the number of jobs for registered nurses is expected to grow by six percent between 2021 and 2031, resulting in approximately 203,200 new job openings every year throughout the decade [3]. The National Cancer Institute, meanwhile, projects that the number of cancer cases will rise to 22.2 million by 2030, suggesting a likely increase in the need for oncology nurses during the same period [4]. 

Where do oncology nurses work?

Oncology nurses can work in various health care settings—essentially anywhere that treats cancer patients.  Some common places oncology nurses work include hospitals, doctor's offices, outpatient care centers, hospices, cancer centers, clinics, and nursing homes.

Read more: Is Health Care a Good Career Path? Outlook, Jobs, and More

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How to become an oncology nurse

To become an oncology nurse, you must first become a registered nurse. Once you've achieved this, you can advance your career through training, education, experience, and various certifications. Here's what you can expect:

1. Earn your nursing degree or diploma.

Every oncology nurse must first start as a registered nurse. That means you'll need to earn either an associate degree (ADN), a bachelor's degree (BSN), or a nursing diploma. While each of these paths will prepare you for the profession, keep in mind that a bachelor's degree is increasingly becoming the standard for nurses, and many employers may prefer applicants with it.

2. Take and pass the NCLEX.

Once you've obtained your nursing degree or diploma, you will qualify for the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX), which you must take and pass to practice professionally.

Once, you've passed the NCLEX, you must then become licensed by the state in which you will practice. Keep in mind, though, that each state has its own requirements, so make sure you have completed each before trying to get licensed.

3. Gain work experience.

Once you become a registered nurse, you'll likely need to gain some clinical experience before becoming an oncology nurse. Typically, it's recommended that you gain two to three years of experience before specializing in a subfield, such as oncology.

During this time, it's particularly beneficial if you gain experience working with cancer patients. You should also explore other specialties within the field, such as pediatric oncology or surgical oncology, to see if there is a specific population or patient type with whom you prefer working.

4. Hone your skills.

Being an oncology nurse can be one of the most emotionally rewarding and challenging jobs in health care. To perform your job well, you'll need to pair medical expertise with emotional intelligence in order to best help patients suffering from some of the most critical health conditions.

Some of the people skills you should work on honing, include:

  • 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. 

5. Consider certification.

Certification is not required in every state, or even for all nursing jobs that work with cancer patients. Nonetheless, gaining certification in the field can help you specialize in a specific area and make you more competitive to potential employers.

Once you have gained some experience, for example, you can earn a certification from the Oncology Nursing Certification Corporation. Some certifications you may consider 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

Looking to advance further?

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.    

Read more: Your Guide to Nursing Degrees and Certifications


Next steps toward a career in oncology nursing

Oncology nurses must continuously learn to keep up with an ever-changing field. If you're interested in either starting or advancing your career as an oncology nurse, then you might consider taking a cost-effective, flexible specialization through Coursera.

In Johns Hopkins Cancer Biology Specialization from Johns Hopkins University, you'll 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.

Article sources


US BLS. "Registered Nurses, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/registered-nurses.htm." Accessed February 15, 2023. 

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