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The role of the oncology nurse

The heart of health care: Oncology nursing

It is often said that nurses are the heart of health care. The field of oncology nursing, in particular, is probably one of the most challenging and rewarding fields in nursing. For those with cancer, oncology nurses are the ones who are there for us during our most difficult and intimate moments in life, the ones at our bedside, educating us, encouraging us. They are also the ones behind the scenes, communicating with our doctors, coordinating our care and keeping us safe.

Who are oncology nurses?

Nurses join the profession for a reason. It’s who they are. They are the healers, the helpers, the caregivers of the world. When nurses choose to work in an oncology setting, they understand there will be challenges, and they do it anyway. They make sacrifices for their patients every day. During a time when you need help the most, it’s a nurse who will right by your side.

“Nurses are at the center of patient care and for this reason they can significantly influence the quality of care provided and ultimately, patient outcomes,” says Cheryl Lynn, BSN, RN, CCRN, HNB-BC, a nurse at CTCA in Philadelphia.

What are the main duties of an oncology nurse?

An oncology nurse is a nursing professional who specializes in caring for people with cancer. Oncology nurses often serve as your first line of communication, and help coordinate the many aspects of your care throughout cancer treatment. They may perform a number of duties, including, but not limited to, the following:

  • Review your health history
  • Assess and monitor your physical and emotional status
  • Keep track of your laboratory, pathology and imaging studies
  • Safely administer medications, fluids and cancer treatments (e.g., chemotherapy)
  • Collaborate with your doctors and other clinicians about your treatment plan
  • Help you understand the disease, your treatment plan and possible side effects
  • Help translate complex medical terminology and answer questions
  • Communicate with your doctors on your behalf
  • Help you plan for and manage symptoms throughout treatment

Where do oncology nurses work?

Oncology nurses practice in a variety of settings, including hospitals, outpatient clinics, private practices, long-term care facilities and more. The scope of oncology nursing spans from prevention and early detection, to treatment (such as surgical oncology, radiation oncology, medical oncology), through symptom management and palliative care.

What type of training does an oncology nurse need?

Oncology nurses have a cancer-specific knowledge base and clinical expertise in cancer care beyond what is acquired in a basic nursing program. Board certification is voluntary and ensures qualifications, knowledge and education in a specialty area. To become oncology certified, nurses typically must have an RN license, meet specific eligibility criteria and pass an exam. Advanced certification generally requires a master's degree or higher in nursing, hours of supervised clinical practice, and sometimes additional training.

The Oncology Nursing Certification Corporation (ONCC) offers several certification options, such as oncology certified nurse (OCN) and advanced oncology certified nurse (AOCN). Certification is typically granted for four years, and is renewed by taking a recertification test or by earning continuing medical education credits.

Challenges of oncology nursing

Caring for cancer patients is very rewarding. It’s also a physically, mentally and emotionally demanding job. Oncology nurses must keep track of numerous details throughout the day for each patient—and they likely have to tend to several patients each day. One mistake could adversely affect a patient’s health, so their attention to detail is critical.

“Nurses are always right there with our patients, in real time, and it is our nurses who are most likely to catch medication errors, prevent falls and know intuitively when a patient requires immediate attention,” says Lynn.

Oncology nurses are also there to provide compassion for their patients, and to keep their patients calm in the midst of a difficult situation. They often form relationships with their patients and learn about the person’s life and family.

Self-care for the oncology nurse

Everyone has bad days. For the oncology nurse, their bad days must be pushed aside to make room for their patients’ needs. Because of the stresses and challenges that come with caring for people with cancer, oncology nurses often experience physical and emotional burnout.

It’s important for nurses to take care of themselves too, which, in turn, helps them better care for their patients. “Self-care must be a priority to properly care for others in a whole way,” says Arlene Seweryn, RN, HN-BC, OCN, a nurse at CTCA in Philadelphia.

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