Have you been in a healthcare facility and stared in wonderment at the nurse’s name badge, questioning what all the letters behind RN meant? Nursing specialties are becoming standard these days, leaving a wide range of answers to the question “what is a nurse?”. I have enjoyed nearly 25 years in the nursing profession, and my specialty is oncology. An oncology nurse is a registered nurse (RN) with special training in caring for cancer patients. Before you say, “I could never do that,” here are four types of oncology nursing roles that may change your mind!
The inpatient oncology nurse cares for cancer patients in the hospital. For example, if a person presents to the emergency department with chest pain and an x-ray shows a mass in their lung, they could be transferred to the oncology unit for more testing and monitoring. Perhaps a person with known cancer becomes infected with a virus or bacteria and needs to be hospitalized for antibiotics and other medications. Or a patient needs to be admitted to the hospital every three weeks for their cancer treatment. In all these situations, the inpatient oncology nurse will be caring for that person.
The very first cancer patient I took care of was in the inpatient setting. She was nine years old and had bone cancer. Every two weeks she was admitted to the hospital for her chemotherapy treatments. She was the spark that lit my fire – from that moment on; I knew I was supposed to be an oncology nurse! I am thrilled to share that this precious little girl was cured of her cancer and continues to live a healthy life; how blessed am I to have been part of her journey? The inpatient oncology nurse needs a special certification to give chemotherapy/immunotherapy. This online course is offered through the Oncology Nursing Society (ONS) and needs to be repeated every two years. They must also have an advanced cardiovascular life support (ACLS) certification and a pediatric advanced life support ( PALS) certification.
When patients are diagnosed with cancer, they will need an entire oncology team to care for them. Many times, these folks can receive all their treatment in an outpatient oncology clinic. Their first appointment will be a consult with a cancer doctor called an oncologist. At this visit, they will also meet their oncology nurse navigator. This nursing specialty is vital to all aspects of the patient’s cancer care. The oncology nurse navigator ensures that every patient has the correct tests, appointments, and procedures scheduled. In addition, they perform patient education, provide prescriptions for medications, and are the main point of contact for the oncology clinic.
As a former oncology nurse navigator, I managed about 350 cancer patients – this was hands down the busiest of all my oncology nursing roles. I answered dozens of phone calls daily, triaged sick patients, filled out stacks of FMLA/disability paperwork, visited with my patients in person, made numerous referrals, and much more! Many nurses may only meet a patient once and never see them again, whereas an oncology nurse navigator works with patients and families for years. I formed strong relationships with my patients, making this a special time in my life. I still have fond memories of each person I served.
In addition to having a chemotherapy/immunotherapy certification through ONS, this specialty nurse must also be an oncology certified nurse (OCN). Earning the OCN is not easy; many hours are spent studying for the three-hour, 165 question exam. However, upon passing, the nurse is considered a subject matter expert (SME) – a rewarding accomplishment. Therefore, I continue to maintain my OCN and am proud to be an expert in my field!
Perhaps the most fun of all my oncology positions, the oncology infusion nurse administers the good stuff, chemotherapy/immunotherapy! If you enjoy hands-on patient care while forming strong bonds with patients and families, this could be for you. The oncology infusion nurse assesses each patient before administering any treatment. They review bloodwork and other results. They verify that the correct medications at the appropriate doses have been ordered. If anything is amiss, they work with the oncologist to correct it.
Since this nursing specialty is responsible for the health and well-being of each patient during the delivery of their cancer treatment, it is crucial to have strong critical thinking skills. Should a patient have an adverse reaction during the infusion, the oncology infusion nurse is the first responder. In some facilities, these nurses are called upon for all medical emergencies in the oncology clinic, not just those receiving treatment. I have been part of two full resuscitation events, giving CPR while waiting for the ambulance! It is an exciting and fulfilling role.
This is typically a Monday – Friday position working 8-10 hours/day with some weekend and holiday shifts. The oncology infusion nurse must have basic life support (BLS), chemotherapy/immunotherapy certification through ONS, and OCN certification.
The Oncology Clinical Trials Nurse (OCTN) is like no other oncology nursing specialty. First, an oncology clinical trial is a research study offering alternative treatments to cancer patients. These therapies are considered experimental since not yet approved by the FDA. Being a research nurse has been my heart and soul. I recently retired after 25 years of employment, and I will never forget my clinical trial patients. How brave does one have to be to receive an investigational medication in hopes of saving themselves or others? Truly amazing!
As a research nurse, my most proud moment was caring for patients on a clinical trial that helped Opdivo (Nivolumab) get FDA approved, an immunotherapy medication now used in multiple cancer types. I can honestly say I have worked with real-life heroes!
This is usually a Monday – Friday role with no weekends or holidays. In addition to the chemotherapy/immunotherapy certification through ONS and having the OCN, oncology clinical trials nurses must also have CITI training. After two years of research experience, the OCTN is eligible to obtain the SOCRA certification.
There you have it, four excellent reasons to be an oncology nurse. If this still does not sound appealing, that’s ok – there are many nursing roles to choose from. It’s an exciting time to be a nurse; whether your goal is to work in a hospital, a clinic, in a patient’s home, remotely, or as a travel nurse, there is something for everyone. A desire to help others combined with passion and commitment is all you need for a successful nursing career.
The Nursing Oncology course provides a solid nursing science foundation for anyone interested in caring for cancer patients. The course is ideal for registered nurses, nursing students, nurse educators, and other healthcare professionals.
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