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Oncology Nurse at a Glance

Oncology refers to the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of cancer. As an Oncology Nurse, you’ll be a crucial member of cancer care teams, providing expertise and support to individuals with a scary diagnosis. Because of the nature of these diagnoses, being an Oncology Nurse requires a strong capacity for compassion and an ability to function at a high level in emotionally stressful settings. While this may seem disheartening, it’s important to note that your service as an Oncology Nurse provides your patients with a valuable base of support in their fight to overcome the odds and exit a survivor. Not all superheros wear capes… some wear scrubs.
What is an Oncology Nurse?
An Oncology Nurse works with patients who have, or who are at risk of getting, cancer. Oncology Nurses provide necessary assessments, administer treatments and communicate with all patient care providers to help develop a plan tailored to each patient’s needs. Because of their constant one-on-one time with their patients, Oncology Nurses tend to form strong and lasting relationships with the people under their care, as well as their families. Cancer patients and their loved ones look to Oncology Nurses to answer pressing questions, provide emotional validation, and address symptoms they might be experiencing.

These relationships are crucial in creating a comprehensive plan of treatment beyond addressing the cancer itself. Oncology Nurses know what their patients need mentally and emotionally to give them the strength to face their diagnosis head on, and provide a pillar of stability for them to lean on when the physical and emotional stresses of cancer treatment begin to take their toll.

What’s the Demand for Oncology Nurses?

Unfortunately, the number of cancer patients in the US is increasing every year, so Oncology Nurses are always in demand. Beyond just filling positions with people who have clinical expertise, hospitals and cancer care centers want Oncology Nurses who are compassionate and clear communicators, and who can handle the emotional toll of a profession where many patients are terminally ill.

How Do You Become an Oncology Nurse?

To become an Oncology Nurse, you must earn a minimum of an Associate’s Degree in Nursing (ADN), but earning your Bachelor’s Degree in the Science of Nursing (BSN) will give you a competitive edge to prospective employers.

After completing your chosen degree, you must earn your license as a Registered Nurse and gain at least 1,000 hours of contact experience, 10 of which must be completed in Oncology. Because there are so many different manifestations of cancer and treatments for them, it’s crucial for incoming Oncology Nurses to have a comprehensive base of knowledge before becoming certified specialists.

The best Oncology Nurses are highly adaptable and emotionally capable. Given the cases they’re tasked with every day, Oncology Nurses must be able to assess and anticipate their patients' needs, both physically and mentally, so they can help relieve additional pain or stress associated with their diagnosis. Additionally, while creating a safe environment for their patients, Oncology Nurses need to be able to communicate and collaborate with their colleagues, sharing valuable updates or insights on a patient’s state that might affect their current treatment plan.

How Much Does an Oncology Nurse Make?
The average annual salary for Oncology Nurses tends to fall between $52k–$98k. As with any profession, factors such as years of experience, the kind of facility you work for, and the state and city you work in can have a significant impact on how you are compensated. Additionally, pursuing further specialized training within the Oncology practice, like earning your ONS/ONCC Chemotherapy Biotherapy Certificate, can make you more financially valuable to your employers.

Source: PayScale, Aug 2018

A massive part of being an Oncology Nurse has to do with the time you spend with your patients. Not only are these relationships crucial in building a strong sense of morale and support, but also because the better you know your patients, the better you’ll attend to their needs. Being able to identify changes in a patient’s vitals or symptoms, good or bad, is essential in managing their treatment plan, and it can’t be done if you’re not spending a significant amount of time with them.
Your patients will look to you for insight and knowledge surrounding their diagnosis, so you’ll want to stay informed about developments in cancer research and care. Additionally, as someone who spends the majority of their time around cancer patients, researchers will likely look to you for insights you’ve gained in your experience.
Having a structure in place is essential in being able to juggle the responsibilities and emotions that you’ll confront every day. Not only does this help Oncology Nurses cover all their bases as clinical care providers, but it also allows them to devote time to building a broader support system for their patients, understanding their needs, and making their time under medical supervision as peaceful as possible given their circumstances.
With so many forms of cancer and patients with a diverse range of health backgrounds, no treatment plan is identical. As an Oncology Nurse, it’s your responsibility to be fluent in each patient’s medical needs, how their cancer might manifest, and how to read their symptoms and progress. Many Oncology Nurses end up specializing within the field, focusing on a specific cancer or treatment, becoming fluent in more specialized methods of care.
An oncology nurse, wearing lead protective gear, looks at x-ray data
You’ll be working in one of the most challenging and rewarding fields of nursing where every day is different.

What does an Oncology Nurse do?

Oncology Nurses hold dynamic daily responsibilities, ranging from clinical care to emotional support and companionship. Having a potentially terminal diagnosis can be extremely isolating for patients, so it’s important for Oncology Nurses to keep this in mind as they approach their daily tasks. These tasks vary depending on where you work and what you specialize in, and present unique technical and emotional challenges for you and your patients.


As a care provider who regularly interacts with patients on both a clinical and personal level, you’ll be relied on to advocate for your patients’ needs to both their families and broader healthcare team. You’ll know how they react to treatments, you’ll know what emotional barriers they might be struggling with, and you’ll be their voice if they can’t communicate for themselves.


As the main professional point of contact for your patients and their families, you’ll advise and teach them about the symptoms they might encounter during treatment, offer techniques for managing symptoms or pain, and communicate their treatment plans in a digestible manner. In these educational moments, it’s important that you’re honest with your patients without speaking in such a clinical manner that you feel removed from their experience. Be compassionate, be straightforward, and do your best to be a pillar of confidence amidst an extremely difficult and uncertain time for these individuals and their loved ones.


As an Oncology Nurse, it’s important to be in tune with the support techniques that work best for each patient. This may feel challenging to someone not facing a potentially terminal diagnosis, so when in doubt, be an active listener. When patients are likely being spoken to in a highly clinical manner, it’s crucial for you to provide a space where they can feel comfortable freely voicing their concerns, questions and emotions.


Depending on your level of certification, you’ll administer treatments like chemotherapy or radiation, monitor your patients vitals and symptoms, assist in managing side effects, and work with your patients’ broader care team to create custom treatment plans for their diagnoses.


As individuals at the forefront of cancer care, Oncology Nurses are always finding new ways to support their patients. This often leads to innovations tailored to each patient, and sometimes leads to entirely new methodologies that are scaled across cancer care facilities. Recognizing the innovative nature of the Oncology Nursing field, in 2019 the Oncology Nursing Society (ONS) launched a dedicated center for innovation, where cancer care providers can connect and share their experiences or findings, and hopefully develop new solutions to transform cancer care as we know it.

Where Can an Oncology Nurse Work?
  • Hospitals
    In a hospital setting, Oncology Nurses tend to assist in coordinating cancer care, assisting in surgical prep, addressing any patient questions surrounding procedures or treatment measures and overall patient wellness.
  • Doctors' office
    Within Oncology Physician offices, Oncology Nurses mainly function as patient educators. These offices typically work with non-surgical management of cancer, administering chemotherapy and other methods of systematic therapy to reduce or eliminate cancerous threats.
  • Outpatient care center
    Oncology-focused outpatient care centers typically provide minimally invasive treatments such as chemotherapy and infusions. Here, Oncology nurses aid in administering treatment, providing support and ensuring their patients are informed about the treatments they’re receiving and what they might expect moving forward in their care plan.
The Oncology Nurse Path

Get an Associate’s Degree in Nursing (ADN) or Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN).

Depending on if you choose to pursue an ADN or BSN, your academic journey to becoming an Oncology Nurse can take from 2 to 4 years in a full-time program.

Pass the NCLEX-RN.

As with most nursing specialties, you’re required to earn your license as a registered nurse before pursuing any further education or certification.

Work as a Registered Nurse, gaining 1,000 hours’ experience and 10 contact hours in Oncology.

Oncology Nurses are required to gain an especially thorough amount of clinical experience before getting certified. Not only does this ensure that they have the proper training, but it also gives them a chance to test their capacity in a profession that can be emotionally draining.

Pass the Oncology Certified Nurse Board exam through the Oncology Nursing Certification Corporation.

Once passed, your certification is valid for four years.

You’re ready to work as an Oncology Nurse!

Join an Organization
Become a member of an Oncology Nurse organization to find career opportunities, learn from your colleagues, and support the profession.

Oncology Nursing Society

Clinical Journal of Oncology Nursing

Association of Pediatric Hematology/Oncology Nurses
Down to their core, nurses carry a fundamental respect for human dignity and an intuition for patient needs. That's why they're natural innovators. If you'd like to learn more about nurse-led innovation, here's where you can get started.
Group of smiling nurses in scrubs holding folders
Group of smiling nurses in scrubs holding folders
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