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What's an oncology nurse?

Four Nursing Specialties That May Surprise You

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!

Inpatient Oncology Nurse

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.

This nursing specialty is an excellent opportunity for those that thrive in a fast-paced, high-energy environment. Working 12 or more hours, including weekends, holidays, and the night shift is not intimidating for this energetic nurse. You can expect to perform patient assessments, dispense medications, administer chemotherapy/immunotherapy, perform procedures, provide patient education, offer emotional support, and work with all team members to provide thorough care. Often patients receive their initial cancer diagnosis in the hospital, and the inpatient oncology nurse is there to lend a gentle smile and hopeful message.

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.

Outpatient Nurse Navigator

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.

The oncology nurse navigator usually works Monday – Friday, 8-10 hour shifts but has weekends and holidays off. This is considered a professional nursing role, so wearing scrubs is unnecessary, making clothes shopping for business casual attire fun!

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!

Oncology Infusion Nurse

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.

Oncology Clinical Trials Nurse

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!

This role is best suited for nurses who enjoy intellectual challenges. Although some OCTNs, like myself, will perform hands-on tasks, this role can be non-clinical. Much time is spent learning the protocol (rule book) for each study and implementing those guidelines with study participants. Like the oncology nurse navigator, the OCTN manages all patient care needs while on the clinical trial. Compared to the other oncology nursing specialties, this role works closely with the oncology doctor who is the principal investigator (PI) on the study – detailed collaboration and communication are a must in this relationship.

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.

Enroll at NextGenU.org, to begin your journey towards professional enhancement.

Hilda Translates for NI Faculty in EGYPT

Hilda grew up in Egypt. She moved to the USA and sold real estate. Then she felt the call to give back. She became a licensed practical nurse. She cares for patients and is also a wife and mom.

When she heard about Nurses International, she wanted to give back to her home country. She asked us if NI was doing any projects in Egypt, and we said yes. She volunteered right away to travel with us a translator.

Not only did Hilda translate for the team, but she provided invaluable information on nursing as a profession and helped us understand things that would have been nearly impossible without her help.

After she returned to the USA, she enrolled in a BSN program and plans to get her MSN, so that she can teach nursing. We're so thankful for Hilda and her help with the NI Team in Egypt.

Hilda, thanks for all you do! We're cheering you on!