Cancer is a malignant disease caused by abnormal cell growth. There are more than 100 different kinds of cancer, though the most common are breast, lung, prostate, skin, kidney, and colon cancer. According to the NIH, it’s estimated that 1.65 million new cases of cancer will be diagnosed in the United States this year. Patients fighting for their lives against cancer depend on oncology nurses to provide compassionate care. Oncology nurses are healers, helpers, and caregivers who specialize in guiding patients through one of the most difficult diagnoses – cancer. Registered nurses in oncology nursing stand proudly at the bedside to educate and encourage patients undergoing cancer treatment. Oncology nurses play a vital role in delivering chemotherapy, radiation therapy, immunotherapy, and other treatments to help cancer patients achieve remission.


According to the BLS, all registered nurses working across all specialties in America earn an annual average salary of $69,790, which is equivalent to a mean hourly wage of $33.55. In particular, oncology nurses earn slightly less with a median salary of $67,883. Oncology nurses who are employed by outpatient cancer care centers have the highest average income potential at $72,390 each year.

Beginning Salary

When just starting out in oncology nursing, new RNs can expect to land in the bottom tenth percentile of earnings with a yearly salary around $45,880. However, it’s important to know that oncology nurses with more experience can eventually make upwards of $83,302. Those who advance as nurse practitioners in oncology will bring home considerably more with an average annual salary of $97,990.

Key Responsibilities

Oncology nurses are given the primary responsibility of coordinating the many aspects of treatment for patients diagnosed with cancer or at-risk for the disease. Oncology nurses utilize their cancer-specific knowledge to monitor the physical conditions and effectively manage the painful symptoms of cancer. Two days on the job are never the same because oncology nurses can be involved in reviewing medical histories, tracking lab results, administering medications, explaining treatment plans, collaborating with doctors, answering patient questions, treating possible side effects, and analyzing imaging studies. Beyond the physical, oncology nurses monitor patients’ emotional status to motivate them and their families for beating cancer.

Necessary Skills

Being successful in oncology nursing will require that RNs are mentally and emotionally strong enough to deal with the potentially life-threatening diagnosis of cancer. Oncology nurses must be compassionate and sympathetic in keeping patients calm in midst of an extremely difficult medical crisis. Having good interpersonal skills is a must for oncology nurses to work with clinicians, educate families, and encourage patients. Oncology nurses should be detail-oriented with great critical thinking skills to notice every change in their patients’ health state. Organizational skills will helpful oncology nurses keep track of multiple cancer patients and accurately file records on patient prognosis.

Degree and Education Requirements

Before you can work as an oncology nurse, you’ll need to follow the steps for becoming a registered nurse (RN) within your state. There are typically three ways to accomplish this: a one-year hospital diploma, two-year associate’s degree in nursing (ADN), or four-year Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN). Most employers will prefer oncology nurses with a bachelor’s degree due to their well-rounded education and more advanced clinical practicum. Make certain you’re filling up your electives with courses related to pain management, chemotherapy, cancer treatment, cancer biology, early detection, and palliative care. Attending graduate school to obtain your Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) or Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) will further unlock doors in advanced practice nursing within oncology.

Pros and Cons of the Position

As with any other nursing career, working as an oncology nurse will have its fair share of rewards and challenges that you should know of. On the positive side, oncology nurses have the unique opportunity to work with the same patients continually and watch many recover from their condition. Oncology nursing is intrinsically rewarding because you’re helping patients deal with difficult medical battles. Oncology nurses also benefit from good salary potential, strong job prospects, advancement options, and fast-paced work environments. On the other hand, oncology nurses may develop strong connections with sick cancer patients who are terminal. Coping with human suffering and stress is part of the job. Cancer treatment also often requires round-the-clock attention, so oncology nurses can work long shifts during irregular hours.

Getting Started

Oncology nursing practice requires substantial knowledge of cancer, which means you’ll have to be experienced to earn this role. After obtaining an appropriate education, you qualify for taking the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN) to become a registered nurse. You’ll then need to begin working in entry-level staff nursing positions to fine-tune your clinical practice skills. Moving into oncology departments will be easier once your resume is filled with prior nursing experience. You’ll need to work at least one full year in oncology to accumulate the 1,000 hours of practice needed for certification. Finally, you can become professionally credentialed by the Oncology Nursing Certification Corporation (ONCC). There are options to become an Oncology Certified Nurse (OCN), Certified Pediatric Oncology Nurse (CPON), Certified Breast Cancer Nurse (CBCN), or Blood and Marrow Transplant Certified Nurse (BMTCN). Certification will require passing a three-hour exam and renewing the credential every four years with continuing education.

Future Outlook

Since a cure continues to evade our medical community, it’s predicted that the number of new cancer diagnoses will rise to 22 million in the next 20 years. The United States has a large aging baby boomer population reaching late adulthood, which places a greater percentage at-risk for developing cancer too. Demand for oncology nurses will continue to grow. In fact, the BLS projects that the overall employment of RNs will skyrocket by 19 percent before 2022. Oncology nurses can find favorable job prospects in hospitals, outpatient clinics, long-term rehabilitation centers, palliative care agencies, private practices, and home health services. Having a bachelor’s degree and experience will make oncology nurses more marketable.

Overall, oncology nurses are the unsung heroes of cancer treatment who act as guiding lights for patients dealing with the dark, depressing diagnosis of cancer. Oncology nurses stay on-top of the latest therapy treatment methods to continue reducing the mortality of cancer. Oncology nurses work with children, adolescents, adults, and older adults who are dealing with painful, often life-threatening cases of cancer. If you specialize as an oncology nurse, you’ll have the rewarding chance to truly make a difference in helping patients claim victory against cancer.


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