Oncology nurses help patients face the uncertain territory that a cancer diagnosis brings and navigate a path through treatment.

May is Oncology Nursing Month and the time is set aside to celebrate the work oncology nurses do with patients, the advocacy they bring to their specialty, and the continual professional development they engage in.

Oncology nurses are committed to the best patient care and that means they need to stay engaged in the latest research and evidence-based practices that are always emerging. Cancer care is highly innovative as new therapies, cutting-edge drugs, and novel understandings of cancer progression are discovered. Nurses who decide to specialize in oncology nursing will match their drive for continual learning with the deep empathy for what their patients and families are coping with.

If you’re interested in becoming an oncology nurse, talking with oncology nurses is helpful to begin your research. The demand for nurses who specialize in cancer care is expected to increase over the next year as life expectancy is extended, the population ages, and more people are surviving cancer with increasingly successful targeted treatment.

The first steps are to earn an associate’s or bachelor’s degree and take the NCLEX exam to become a registered nurse. As with other nursing paths, you’ll want to gain general nursing experience where you’re likely to interact with cancer patients. Because people are surviving longer with cancer and treatments are keeping cancer either in remission or at a level where people manage the disease for years, you’re probably going to encounter people living with cancer in just about any unit you work in. You’ll begin to understand the special health needs they have, and the roadblocks they may encounter. For instance, they may have medication contradictions for other existing health conditions, or they may have to consider different approaches to new treatments they need. And they may have emotional and psychological needs to consider as you are working with them.

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Cancer care, and living with cancer, is incredibly complex and touches virtually every other aspect of a patient’s life—from nutritional needs to sleep to navigating the world during a pandemic. As you begin to focus your career on oncology nursing, your experience with how all these different factors impact your patient will help you determine the best way to help and guide them while offering excellent patient care.

Connect with other oncology nurses to hear about the hot topics in the field. Organizations like the Oncology Nursing Society, the International Society for Nurses in Cancer Care, and the Oncology Nursing Foundation offer many resources for you to learn more about this career. Read up on some journals focused on oncology such as The Oncology Nurse or the Clinical Journal of Oncology Nursing.

Certification through an organization like the Oncology Nursing Certification Corporation is essential for oncology nurses because it helps you stay on top of the innovative treatments as they are implemented. Additional certifications are available as you move deeper into a specialty area of oncology nursing. The additional knowledge you’ll gain through certification will only help you provide better, more informed patient care, and your efforts will signal your commitment to being the best nurse you can be.

This field is growing and dynamic. Oncology nurses are needed in many healthcare settings, and they develop relationships with patients over the course of treatment and continued care. This nursing path is flexible, innovative, and rewarding.

Julia Quinn-Szcesuil
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