Oncology Nurses Month is honored throughout the month of May and celebrates the broad options of this nursing path.

Nurses who pursue this career specialty and who work with patients who have cancer are open to many career opportunities. They are often on the cutting edge of technology and working with new treatments that change evidence-based practice with each successful development.

“With over 34,000 clinical trials occurring to test new drugs, combination therapies, and supportive strategies for patients, novel cancer therapies and care strategies are constantly emerging and being integrated into practice which provides exciting new treatment options for cancer patients,” says Erin Dickman, Oncology Clinical Specialist with the Oncology Nursing Society (ONS).

“An oncology nurse can be in the role of a staff nurse, nurse practitioner, clinical trials nurse, clinical nurse specialist, or administrator just to name a few,” she says. Because of this, oncology nurses can work in various healthcare settings and treat patients of all ages. And oncology nurses are constantly learning from their patients, their professional development, and each other. Oncology nurses should keep asking questions and working through the evidence-based practice process to ensure that all practices are evidence-based to ensure the best outcomes for your patients, she says.

Oncology nurses know that each patient will respond differently to cancer therapies, so they need to have the critical thinking, clinical experience, and expertise to respond to each patient’s individual needs. “They administer drugs within a treatment plan and the supportive medications that help to prevent and manage side effects,” Dickman says, “and they create individualized care plans for each patient that identify needs and risks of the patient, come up with a plan of interventions to achieve positive health care outcomes.”

Nurses in this field are an integral part of the care team and will work and communicate with various providers, family members, caregivers, and support services. As a result of working so closely with patients, nurses, says Dickman, are advocates for them and may be the driving force in getting access to additional care or specialty consults.

The COVID-19 crisis presents challenges for oncology nurses. “Nurses have had to flex, innovate, and adapt in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic,” says Dickman. “Treatment protocols have been offered in different locations and some appointments are even switching to telehealth visits. Oncology nurses have especially been challenged in helping patients differentiate between COVID-19 symptoms and those associated with the disease process and treatment through additional remote monitoring and screening they have been providing to their patients.” They are also determining how treatment plans will need to change to protect patients’ health and are navigating the loss of support systems during visitor restrictions. “The oncology nurse has stepped up to be the hand holder and person to reassure the patient of their strength,” says Dickman.

Even as they are using their technical nursing skills, oncology nurses are also finely tuned to how their patients are responding to their condition and their treatment. “Sometimes overlooked, is the role that nurses play on the psychosocial and emotional well-being of patients and the role nurses play as advocates for their patients,” says Dickman. And nurses must trust their intuition. “When you think something may be wrong with your patient and they may require some intervention — either physically or psychosocially, they usually do,” she says.

If oncology nursing sounds like a career path you’d like to pursue, Dickman recommends talking with oncology nurses and even finding a mentor who can help you find the best subspecialty for your interests and skills. She also suggests talking with current and former cancer patients to find out about how nurses impacted their care.

Nursing students can choose to pursue many avenues to boost their knowledge of the field. “Other options are to find a shadowing opportunity, volunteer or become a nursing assistant on an oncology unit, seek out internships or externships, or build your knowledge base in oncology by taking select oncology focused classes,” she says. “There is also free student membership to ONS so you can stay up to date with what is happening in cancer care.”

A cancer diagnosis not only affects the patient’s physical and emotional health, but it also transforms a family and is a life-defining moment. “There are many ups and downs to cancer treatment, but having the opportunity to walk with patients throughout the journey is a gift,” says Dickman. “There is no greater reward than knowing you have helped a patient and family through a very difficult time, shared their joy, and helped them cope with sadness.”

Julia Quinn-Szcesuil
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