Oncology nurses are involved in the care of individuals, families, and patient groups who have received a cancer diagnosis. The role of the oncology nurse has expanded considerably since its inception in the 1950s, when surgery was the primary cancer treatment. Now that cancer treatment has become more multifaceted, advanced practice oncology nurses may take on duties related to cancer prevention, screening, care, management, and research; serving as direct caregivers, healthcare consultants, patient educators, administrators, or researchers.
Work settings for oncology nurses include hospitals, cancer centers, doctors’ offices, patients’ homes, extended care facilities, and hospices. In addition to primary specialization in a patient population and sub-specialization in oncology, advanced practice oncology nurses often find their careers lead them to focus on a specific area of oncology or treatment method, such as:
- Bone marrow transplant
- Breast oncology
- Cancer genetic counseling
- Gynecological oncology
- Palliative care
- Prevention and early detection of cancer
- Radiation oncology
- Surgical oncology
Oncology Nursing Education and Degree Options
Registered nurses with a BSN and additional onocological training can practice oncology nursing; however, becoming an advanced practice oncology nurse by completing a graduate program for nurse practitioners or clinical nurse specialists provides a greater depth of knowledge in oncological pathology and treatment.
Educational programs typically offer oncology as a subspecialty within a patient population focus. For example, some MSN-Adult (and Adult/Gerontology) Nurse Practitioner programs offer the adult oncology nurse practitioner subspecialty. Likewise some MSN-Pediatric Nurse Practitioner programs offer pediatric oncology as a subspecialty. This is also true of MSN-Acute Care Nurse Practitioner programs, which often offer an option to concentrate in oncology.
Clinical nurse specialists often specialize in oncology by pursing MSN programs with the oncology CNS option.
Post-master’s oncology certificate programs are available for existing nurse practitioners and clinical nurse specialists interested in pursuing the oncology subspecialty. Research-based (PhD or DNSc) and clinical doctoral degrees (DNP) with concentrations in oncology are also available.
Graduate level programs in oncology for nurse practitioners and clinical nurse specialists will cover:
- How to assess cancer risk in both individuals and general populations
- Prevention strategies, screening, and health promotion
- Diagnosing and managing common cancers
- Assessing patients with cancer, the effects of the cancer, and side effects of its treatment
- Helping patients and their families to deal with cancer and its possible outcomes, including understanding cultural, religious, and lifestyle differences in dealing with these issues
- Coordinating palliative and end of life care, working with patients, families, caregivers, and other members of a patient’s healthcare team
Adult Oncology Certification
The Oncology Nursing Certification Corporation (ONCC) offers three certifications for adult oncology nurses. All three require an active and unrestricted RN license.
- Oncology Certified Nurse (OCN) is the credential for registered nurses without a graduate degree but with at least 1,000 hours of adult oncology nursing practice during the 30 months prior to applying, and at least 10 continuing education hours in nursing or an oncology elective taken during the 36 months prior to applying.
- Advanced Oncology Certified Nurse Practitioner (AOCNP) requires an MSN or higher from an accredited school, completion of an accredited nurse practitioner program, and at least 500 hours of supervised clinical practice as an adult oncology nurse practitioner.
- Advanced Oncology Certified Clinical Nurse Specialist (AOCNS) requires an MSN or higher from an accredited institution and at least 500 hours of supervised advanced clinical practice in adult oncology nursing.
The Oncology Nursing Certification Corporation also offers the Certified Breast Care Nurse (CBCN) specialty certification for RNs who want to specialize specifically in breast health. ONCC previously offered an Advanced Oncology Certified Nurse (AOCN) certification, but that exam is now retired. However, nurses with the certification can still renew it.
Pediatric Oncology Certification
The ONCC offers the Certified Pediatric Hematology Oncology Nurse (CPHON) credential. Taking the exam requires:
- A current, active, unrestricted RN license
- At least 12 months of experience as an RN within the 36 months prior to applying
- At least 1,000 hours of pediatric oncology or hematology nursing practice during the 30 months prior to applying
- At least 10 contact hours of continuing nursing education or an academic elective in oncology nursing during the 36 months prior to applying
ONCC previously offered the Certified Pediatric Oncology Nurse (CPON) credential, but that exam is now retired. However, nurses with the certification can still renew it.
Pediatric nurse practitioners can also become certified through the Pediatric Nursing Certification Board (PNCB) as Acute Care CPNPs or Primary Care CPNPs, or through the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC) in primary care, resulting n the PNP-BC credential.
The Oncology Nursing Society (ONS) has more than 35,000 members, both Registered Nurses and other healthcare providers and publishes the periodical, Standards of Oncology Education: Generalist and Advanced Practice Levels.
Another organization is the International Society of Nurses in Cancer Care. Specialty associations include the Society of Gynecologic Nurse Oncologists and the Hospice and Palliative Nurses Association.
The Association of Pediatric Hematology Oncology Nurses (APHON) supports nurses specializing in providing nursing care to children, adolescents, and young adults who have cancer and blood disorders. Pediatric nurse practitioners may also be interested in the National Association of Pediatric Nurse Practitioners (NAPNAP).
Oncology Nursing Salaries
The National Salary Report 2011 published by the continuing education provider, Advance for NPs and PAs, shows that the average annual salary for nurse practitioners working in oncology clinics was $90,862 that year.
The 2011 American Academy of Nurse Practitioners National NP Compensation Survey doesn’t provide salary data specific to oncology nurses but does show the following average base salaries for NPs, inclusive of those working in oncology:
- Acute Care NP: $96,580
- Adult NP: $93,990
- Pediatric NP: $87,610