What Does It Take to Become an Oncology Nurse?

It has often been said that nursing takes a special kind of person. For oncology nursing, that statement may ring even more true. Given the fragile health of the patients as well as the frequency with which challenging treatments may be needed, oncology nurses must possess a unique skill set and personality.

What Characteristics Do Oncology Nurses Need?

There are a number of reasons that nurses may gravitate toward working with oncology patients. Whether it is because a family member or friend battled cancer or they simply feel drawn to this specialty, many oncology nurses share similar characteristics that can contribute to success in the position.

“The most important qualities for oncology [nurses] are compassion and a genuine interest in providing care for people with cancer,” said Lisa Kennedy Sheldon, chief clinical officer for the Oncology Nursing Society. “Nurses need to develop trusting, compassionate relationships with their patients in order to accurately understand their experience, assess symptoms, and treat their cancer.”

Skills including interpersonal, advocacy, and critical thinking are important as well. “Interpersonal, communication skills are the foundation of the nurse-patient relationship and vital to working [as a] team member in an inter-professional environment. Nurses need advocacy skills to promote the needs of their patients and their profession,” said Sheldon. “Finally, cancer is a complex disease and often occurs in people with other health problems [so] critical thinking [and] problem-solving skills are very important.”

Because of the nature of the work, caring for oncology patients can be emotionally and mentally draining. Nurses who have the ability to recognize those challenges early on can prevent the damaging effects of compassion fatigue. “Compassion fatigue is a real problem and nurses need to understand how to care for themselves so they have energy and openness for their patients,” said Sheldon. Nurses should be able to practice self-awareness and acknowledge their own limitations. They may need to be comfortable with and able to advocate for themselves, reaching out for support from their coworkers and employers as needed.

Lastly, Sheldon urges nurses who are interested in pursuing a specialization in oncology to also commit to lifelong continuing education and professional advancement opportunities. “Cancer care is rapidly changing and nurses need up-to-date information to provide the best care to their patients.”

How Do I Become an Oncology Nurse?

The first step to becoming an oncology nurse is to earn your Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree. Ideally, the program’s curricula will include topics related to cancer care that can help build your skillset and eventually prepare you for certification. The online RN to BSN program at CSUSM includes several of these courses. Here’s a partial list:

  • BIOL 316: The Biology of Cancer.
  • NURS 352: Nursing Research.
  • NURS 450: Nursing Leadership and Professional Issues.
  • NURS 440: Community Health Nursing.

Following completion of your degree program and once you have worked as a licensed nurse for at least one year and accumulated 1,000 or more hours in an oncology setting, you are eligible to pursue certification to become an Oncology Certified Nurse (OCN). The Oncology Nursing Certification Corporation issues OCN certifications to applicants who pass a multiple-choice exam. Certification renewals are required every four years and are based on meeting a combination of practice hours, professional development and testing guidelines. Obtaining OCN certification demonstrates your commitment to the field of oncology nursing to current and potential employers.

Making the Commitment

Nursing is a career that requires a significant level of compassion, initiative and knowledge. For nurses who are interested in specializing in oncology though, even greater amounts of empathy and critical thinking skills may be necessary. Nurses who possess those characteristics and are committed to pursuing professional development opportunities as well as additional certification may find the most success.

Learn about the CSUSM online RN to BSN program.


Oncology Nursing Certification Corporation: Certifications

Discover Nursing: Oncology Nurse

Sheldon, L. (2016, December 8). Email interview.

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