As cancer treatment changes at a rapid pace, the job of an oncology nurse evolves with lightning speed. May is Oncology Nursing Month and showcases the speed, skill, and thirst for life-long learning necessary for this career.

Oncology nurses care for patients from infancy to the very oldest in a population, so the potential to specialize in specific areas is available. And because cancer occurs throughout the body and body systems, staying up-to-date on the latest developments is required for oncology nurses. The Oncology Nurses Society is an excellent resource for nurses in the field or those considering it.

The good news is that cancer patients are living longer and with a better quality of life, even with advanced cancer. Research around the world sparks new hope for targeting cancer that is present and for preventing cancer in ways never before possible. As medical researchers continue to make new discoveries, they are saving lives and giving people hope.

Because so many cancers that were often quickly fatal a generation ago are now being managed, the field of oncology nursing is adapting to care for these patients. Nurses now treat survivors of childhood cancers who are well into adulthood and requiring long-term surveillance through other life events like pregnancy or even additional medical conditions. They are also treating older patients whose cancer is manageable medically but still has significant impact on quality of life. The complexities of offering top-quality medical care for the physical disease often merges with providing top-quality care for the emotional and spiritual issues that can crop up.

Oncology nurses see the effects of cancer on entire families as well and so frequently work within a family dynamic that ranges from the most heart-breaking sadness to the most celebratory joy. Nurses who are thinking of this specialty should work in several care settings and with different patients and conditions to find a path that resonates with their interests and passion. Some nurses choose a particular specialty based on their personal experience. Becoming certified in specific areas will increase your knowledge and help your career—you can find that information through the Oncology Nursing Certification Corporation.

One of the primary goals in oncology nursing is education—and there’s a lot of educating that happens with a cancer diagnosis. Patients who receive a cancer diagnosis are often scared, so educating them in a way they can understand is essential. As every oncology nurse knows, there is more to it than just presenting the facts—empathy and compassion play a big role, too..

As the patient moves along through treatment, nurses are there every step of the way to help them understand how the treatment works and what kind of changes or side effects are likely or known. They offer ways to help alleviate discomfort or pain and may be able to put patients in touch with other resources (support groups, mental health support, additional home care) to help them as well.

Patients also want to know what might happen in the future and if the cancer will go away or could come back. And while tools are being developed to help the medical community get to that point, those predictions aren’t reliably available right now. Oncology nurses play a big role in helping patients live with their disease and the unpredictability that accompanies cancer. Their care and compassion are often remembered as playing a significant role in a patient’s journey.

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Julia Quinn-Szcesuil

Julia Quinn-Szcesuil is a freelance writer based in Bolton, Massachusetts.
Julia Quinn-Szcesuil
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