If you find your way into oncology nursing, you may never leave. Jobs are plentiful, diverse and challenging, oncology nurses say. And once you've gotten a taste of caring for cancer patients, other nursing jobs pale in comparison.
"It's ‘once an oncology nurse, always an oncology nurse,'" says Mary Murphy, MS, director of clinical systems at the Hospice of Dayton in Ohio. "In oncology nursing, you have the opportunity to use all your skills, to look at the whole person and to care for people for a long period of time. I get up every morning and feel good about what I do."
Oncology nursing jobs span the full spectrum of the cancer continuum, from prevention to acute, rehabilitative and palliative care. An oncology nurse may administer chemotherapy in a physician's office, for example, or care for hospital patients undergoing surgery or bone-marrow transplants. An oncology nurse could also assist in clinical trials at a cancer center or provide in-home palliative care.
"There are a variety of opportunities in oncology nursing, depending on your personality type," says Murphy, an advanced oncology certified nurse (AOCN). An oncology nurse who likes a sense of routine and teamwork may thrive in a physician's office or a hospital, for instance, while someone who prefers autonomy and troubleshooting may gravitate toward hospice or home care.
‘You Use Everything You've Learned'
No matter what working environment they choose, oncology nurses must be committed to lifelong learning, explains Jeanne Held-Warmkessel, MSN, RN, AOCN, a clinical nurse specialist at Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia. "In oncology, your education is never over," she says.
In the 22 years that Held-Warmkessel has been working with oncology patients, new medications, treatment regimens and technologies have vastly improved the quality and length of patients' lives. At Fox Chase, Held-Warmkessel is on the cutting edge of cancer treatment, caring for patients enrolled in clinical trials. Many cancer patients are critically ill, with multiple needs. "You have to be really astute and technologically competent to care for these patients," she says. "They keep you on your toes. You use everything you've learned in nursing school and throughout your career every day."
Held-Warmkessel is energized by the fast-paced challenges she faces daily but finds her greatest professional fulfillment in her interactions with patients. "It's extremely rewarding to see someone get better and go home, or to see a hospice patient have a quiet, calm death," she says. "Knowing I've helped a patient or family adapt or adjust to a diagnosis and assisting in treatment planning is also rewarding."
Training or Transitioning
The path to becoming an oncology nurse varies. Some healthcare organizations have oncology training and preceptor programs for new graduate RNs; other employers prefer transitioning experienced RNs into oncology roles. Many oncology nurses pursue an MSN, which prepares them for increased care-giving responsibilities and expanded roles in administration, education, public health, research and consulting. Salaries for RNs in oncology start at $35,000; advanced practice oncology nurses earn from $60,000 to $125,000.
Although not mandatory, nurses who administer chemotherapy can validate their proficiency by taking a two-day class and passing a test offered by the Oncology Nursing Society. Oncology nurses can also earn various certifications through the Oncology Nursing Certification Corp.
The job outlook for oncology nurses of all educational levels -- from those with associate's degrees to advanced degrees -- is strong for the foreseeable future, according to Murphy. "With expertise in oncology nursing, you can get a job anywhere," she says. "And once you get into oncology nursing, you'll never want to get out."