As I began to write this piece to tell aspiring nursing students why choosing oncology might be a great choice, I reflected on my own haphazard path into oncology. I guess I’d be lying if I said I choose oncology as a nursing specialty when I finished my BSN. Yes, I had a great experience as a candystriper on an oncology unit in high school. However, the reality was that there were two jobs available at the institution I wanted to work at and they were both in oncology – one in gynecologic oncology and the other in a general medical oncology unit. I chose medical oncology thinking I’d prefer a more diverse experience. I didn’t really expect to love it, just learn some med-surg basics and figure out what I wanted to do with the rest of my nursing career. But I did love it – and still do, almost 20 years later.
Talk to an oncology nurse and they will tell you the rewards of this specialty; the fact that you never leave work thinking did I really make a difference in someone’s life today? You don’t have to ask, you did. They might tell you about the honor you feel holding a dying person’s hand, the way you live your life differently because of the people you’ve met in this profession or the joy you share in when a person finishes treatment. But it’s not for everyone. I started my career on the oncology unit with 13 newly minted nurses and more than half have moved on to other specialty areas. But if it is a right fit for you, you will know.
So, how did I get here? I completed a Bachelor of Science in Nursing and went to work. My positions as a bedside nurse are the ones that meant the most to me – I found them the most rewarding and fulfilling. While a nurse with any degree can specialize in oncology, there has been a trend towards requiring a BSN to practice in many hospitals. Once in an oncology position, you will have training in the administration of oncology medications (chemotherapy, biotherapy, etc.), perhaps learn about the subspecialties of surgical oncology or radiation oncology. Much of this training is done on the job or in courses held at your hospital or other local institutions. Once you have worked and gained some experience, you may want to seek a professional certification from the Oncology Nursing Certification Corporation. Many employers offer higher pay or bonuses to certified nurses.
After working for a number of years, I decided to take advantage of the tuition reimbursement offered by my employer and pursue a Master’s degree. After a lot of hard work and balancing of home, work and school, I received a Master of Science in Nursing and a Nurse Practitioner of Adult Oncology License (see how licensing requirements have changed). My MSN program was a “blended role” Advanced Practice Nurse program, meaning I was prepared to function as a nurse practitioner or a clinical nurse specialist. In the 12 years since, I have worked in a number of positions, including staff development, clinical nurse specialist, adjunct faculty and my current role as OncoLink’s Nurse Educator. One thing I love about nursing in general is the many directions your career can take and the number of ways you can use your knowledge- in both your professional and personal life.
Now that is what it takes on paper to become an oncology nurse. But what does it really take? In a word, heart. You become part of a person’s life during what is quite possibly the most difficult time they have ever experienced. They have started on a journey they did not choose – and you are their guide. If you cannot care for every patient as if they were your family members, then this might not be the place for you. Remember that no person is ever diagnosed alone- this diagnosis affects their spouse or partner, family and friends as well. If you want to hold a patient’s hand through this journey, providing education, treatment, symptom management and sometimes just a listening ear or shoulder to cry on, then join me. Join me on a journey that will provide a lifelong, rewarding career that is sure to change your appreciation for life.
For more insights into the oncology profession, view a few of the I Wish U Knew videos from oncology professionals on their thoughts on working in oncology:
I wish u knew… Caring for people with advanced lung cancer with Vicki Sherry, RN, MSN, CRNP
I wish u knew… providing care at the end of life is a privilege and The honor of being an oncologist with Bruce Giantonio, MD
I wish u knew… how cancer patients have changed my life with James Metz, MD
I wish u knew… the rewards of working in radiation oncology with Christine Hill-Kayser, MD
I wish u knew… the role of the nurse practitioner in oncology with Genny Hollis, MSN, CRNP