How to Become a Certified Oncology Nurse
Duties, Responsibilities, Requirements, Certifications, Job Outlook, and Salary
Many of us have been affected by cancer in one way or another. We may know people who were diagnosed with cancer or even through first-hand experience. For people in the medical profession, those experiences may influence their decision to specialize in oncology, a branch of medicine that specializes in the diagnoses and treatment of cancer.
In light of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, we developed a career guide for nurses who wish to specialize in the care and treatment of patients with cancer, oncology nurses.
If you’re considering a career as an oncology nurse, and you’re curious about the benefits and requirements that go along with it, this article will explore the role of an oncology nurse, their duties, responsibilities, salary, and educational requirements.
How to Become an Oncology Nurse
Our comprehensive guide will cover questions like the below:
- What kind of nurses work with cancer patients?
- What does an oncology nurse do?
- How much do oncology nurses make?
- How many hours do oncology nurses work?
- How many years does it take to be an oncology nurse?
- What education is needed to become an oncology nurse?
- What are oncology nurse certification requirements?
- What are some oncology nurse benefits?
What Is an Oncology Nurse?
Oncology Nurse Definition
Oncology nurses care for patients who are diagnosed with cancer. In addition to caring for patients, oncology nurses also provide counseling support to their patients’ families and caregivers.
Oncology nurses can make a real difference in the lives of others. It is an admirable career path that offers learning experiences, monetary rewards, and professional growth. Throughout their careers, oncology nurses can develop meaningful relationships with their patients and other members of the oncology medical team.
Oncology Nurse Job Description
What Does an Oncology Nurse Do?
The duties of an oncology nurse may depend on their level of education and training. Some oncology nurses are registered nurses (RNs), while others are advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs). Oncology nurses who have earned APRN status are referred to as oncology nurse practitioners.
Oncology nursing responsibilities revolve around caring for their patients, families, and communities. According to nurse.org, the role of the oncology nurse has grown to include various elements of care, such as:
- Cancer education and prevention
- Cancer screening
- Nurse navigation
- Nursing management
- Direct patient care
In addition, there are many focus areas under the oncology umbrella, including:
- Bone marrow transplantation
- Breast Oncology
- Gynecologic oncology
- Genetic counseling
- Radiation oncology
- Surgical oncology
Oncology Nurse Skills
What Makes a Good Oncology Nurse?
Soft skills are important for all healthcare professionals. However, in the field of oncology, those skills are vital.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), some oncology nurse qualifications include:
- Critical-thinking skills, as nurses must assess changes in their patients. For instance, they need to know when it’s best to take corrective action, and when to make referrals.
- Communication skills, as it’s critical that oncology nurses communicate effectively.
- Compassion, as it’s best to have empathy for the people they heal.
- Emotional stability, as dealing with sick and injured people can be stressful.
- Physical stamina, as nurses need to be comfortable performing physical tasks, such as moving patients or being on their feet.
- Being detail-oriented, as oncology nurses help ensure that patients receive the correct care at the right time.
Oncology Nurse Requirements
What are the Oncology Nurse Education Requirements?
In the U.S., there are several paths you can take to become an oncology nurse. At a minimum, you must be a registered nurse with either an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) or a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree.
Some may choose to further their oncology nurse education by pursuing a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree.
Upon earning your degree, you will need to pass the NCLEX-RN licensing exam. This exam is nationally recognized and offered by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN). After passing the NCLEX, you can pursue specialization in oncology.
Rules and regulations for oncology can vary by state. Do not assume that your qualifications will allow you to work everywhere. It’s important that you check the regulations of your state. One great resource is the American Nurses Association (ANA) and the NCSBN. While some states won’t require specific oncology nurse certification, it can be incredibly beneficial.
Prerequisites for Oncology Nurse Programs
Whether you’re pursuing an oncology nurse degree or program, the admissions requirements will vary depending on the school you attend. Some of these requirements may include:
- Minimum SAT or ACT scores
- Average GPA between 2.5 and 3.5
- Excellent grades in subjects such as math, science, and English
- A passing score on the TOEFL for whom English is a second language
Some universities may also have additional requirements, such as:
- Letters of recommendation
- Essays and personal statements
- A statistics course
Bonus tip: Make sure your chosen program is accredited. In the U.S., there are several accrediting bodies. Learn more about the two main ones here and here.
How Long Does It Take to Become an Oncology Nurse?
Oncology Nurse Schooling
Before you seek specialization or certification, there are three primary routes you can take to become a registered nurse. Each one requires a different level of time and dedication.
When narrowing down your list of schools, check to see if any specifically provide oncology nurse courses or oncology nurse training. You might even find oncology nurse colleges with specialty programs, so don’t forget to do your research!
Option 1: Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN)
If you choose to pursue an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN), you might spend one to two years in school. This degree would allow you to enter the workforce sooner, and it’s cheaper than a BSN degree. According to Nurse Journal, the average cost of an associate degree is about $31,000.
You can usually find ADN programs at vocational schools or community colleges. ADN courses cover topics like anatomy and physiology, microbiology, lifespan development, and applied managerial statistics. However, an associate degree might lessen your opportunities. As the healthcare field grows more competitive, many employers are beginning to prefer nurses with BSN degrees.
Option 2: Bachelor’s Degree in Nursing (BSN)
Higher-level nursing degrees can open doors in the nursing field. Not only can the Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree lead to a fulfilling career as a registered nurse, it offers a path for current Associate Degree RNs to advance their careers. In short, acquiring a BSN will give you the knowledge and skillset to meet the increasingly complex demands of healthcare today.
Most students can earn their BSN degree in about two to three years. Most BSN programs are offered by vocational schools or universities and costs can vary from one institution to the next.
You can start your BSN training without prior nursing experience, or if you already have an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN), you can enroll in an RN-to-BSN program. These bridge programs are very convenient and can be completed in as little as 20 months.
Also, if you are a licensed vocational nurse with an Associate Degree in Vocational Nursing (ASVN), you can pursue an LVN-to-BSN degree path. This pathway may allow you to skip the first three semesters of the BSN program.
Option 3: Master’s Degree
If you’re looking for oncology nurse practitioner programs, you might want to consider a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree. To become a nurse practitioner, nurse anesthetist, or nurse midwife—also referred to as advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs)—you must earn at least a master’s degree in your healthcare concentration. According to the BLS, APRNs must also be licensed RNs in their state and pass a national certification exam.
Though it depends on the individual school, MSN programs can often be completed in two years. However, you can also pursue an entry-level MSN program if you already hold a bachelor’s degree in another subject. These programs, which are called a Master’s Entry Program in Nursing (MEPN), typically take about three years to complete.
Though costs and classes may vary across different MSN programs, expect to cover topics like Health Policy in Nursing, Disease Prevention, and Legal Aspects of Healthcare Administration.
Oncology Nurse Certification
How to Become a Certified Oncology Nurse
The Oncology Nursing Certification Corporation (ONCC) can help you distinguish yourself from other nurses. At ONCC, you’ll find nationally accredited certification programs. In fact, they are the only oncology-specific certifications designed for Registered Nurses. Certification will demonstrate your cutting-edge knowledge of cancer care. When you need to apply, maintain, or renew certifications, ONCC is the place to go.
Below are their certifications for oncology nurses:
- Oncology Certified Nurse (OCN®)
- This test allows you to become an oncology certified nurse. It also recognizes your specialty knowledge in oncology nursing.
- Requires a minimum of two years (24 months) of experience as an RN within the four years (48 months) prior to application, and a minimum of 2,000 hours of adult oncology nursing practice within the four years (48 months) prior to application.
- Certified Pediatric Hematology Oncology Nurse (CPHON®)
- This test allows you to become a pediatric oncology certified nurse. It also recognizes your specialty knowledge in pediatric oncology nursing.
- Requires a minimum of two years (24 months) of experience as an RN within the four years (48 months) prior to application, and a minimum of 2,000 hours of pediatric hematology oncology nursing practice within the four years (48 months) prior to application.
- Certified Breast Care Nurse (CBCN®)
- This test allows you to become a certified breast care nurse and recognizes your specialty knowledge.
- Requires a minimum of two years (24 months) of experience as an RN within the four years (48 months) prior to application, and a minimum of 2,000 hours of breast care nursing practice within the four years (48 months) prior to application.
- Blood & Marrow Transplant Certified Nurse (BMTCN®)
- Take the BMTCN® test to get recognized for your expert knowledge in blood and marrow transplant.
- Requires a minimum of two years (24 months) of experience as an RN within the four years (48 months) prior to application, and a minimum of 2,000 hours of BMT nursing practice within the four years (48 months) prior to application.
- Advanced Oncology Certified Nurse Practitioner (AOCNP®)
- This test is specifically for oncology nurse practitioner certification. In other words, it allows you to become an advanced oncology certified nurse. It also recognizes your expert knowledge and advanced practice role in oncology nursing.
- Requires a graduate degree from accredited Nurse Practitioner program with concentration in oncology, 500 hours of supervised clinical practice as an adult oncology nurse practitioner obtained within and/or following the graduate program within the past five years, and one graduate level oncology course of at least two credits or 30 hours oncology continuing education within the past five years.
*Note: Certifications with an asterisk are only available for maintaining certification and renewal, so we will not be delving deeper into them today.
Bonus tip: Follow the ONCC’s five steps to certification! They make it easier for you here.
Oncology Nurse Jobs
Where Do Oncology Nurses Work?
Oncology nurses can find employment in numerous healthcare settings. These include hospitals, cancer centers, clinics, physician offices, home care agencies (i.e. palliative and hospice care), hospice centers, and extended care facilities.
In 2018, registered nurses held about 3.1 million jobs. The largest employers of RNs are as follows:
|Hospitals; state, local, and private||60%|
|Ambulatory healthcare services||18%|
|Nursing and residential care facilities||7%|
|Educational services; state, local, and private||3%|
Oncology Nurse Hours
According to the BLS, most oncology nurses work full time. Some might work nights, weekends, or holidays, and work hours will largely depend on your employer. For instance, nurses in a physician’s office will likely work normal business hours. Those in hospitals or various other facilities may work in shifts to provide round-the-clock care. For some oncology nurses, their jobs require them to be on call or complete longer shifts.
Oncology Nurse Salary
How Much Does an Oncology Nurse Make?
As an oncology nurse, your salary will largely depend on your level of education, experience, employer, and location. In May 2018, the BLS reported the average annual salary for RNs was $71,730, with a range from $50,800 to $106,530 per year.
The average salary of an oncology nurse falls well within this range:
- How much does an oncology nurse make an hour? The average oncology nurse hourly wage is about $32.32.
- How much does an oncology nurse make per year? On average, an oncology nurse’s pay is $69,880 per year.
- How much do oncology nurse practitioners make per year? For oncology nurses who chose to advance their careers to become nurse practitioners, they can earn annual salaries up to $182,750.
Oncology Nurse’s Salary by Experience
Based on figures obtained through PayScale.com, the following oncology nursing salaries are broken down by experience level:
|Entry-level oncology nurse||$61,283|
|Mid-career oncology nurse||$69,901|
|Experienced oncology nurse||$72,118|
|Late Career oncology nurse||$73,342|
Oncology Nurse’s Salary Based on Additional Skillsets
Based on figures obtained through PayScale.com, the following oncology nursing salaries are based on additional skillsets.
|Stem Cell Transplantation||$84,500|
Oncology Nurse Job Outlook
Are Oncology Nurses in Demand?
The nursing profession is expected to experience steady growth. In fact, for registered nurses, the BLS predicts that employment opportunities will increase 12 percent by 2028. They also predict that overall employment of nurse practitioners will grow 26 percent by 2028!
The demand for both professions is attributed to an increasing need for healthcare services. As the baby-boomer population ages, they will require more preventative care. In addition, many nurses are nearing retirement age, which will create an even greater need.
Nursing is a rich profession, full of diverse specialties, careers, and people. Within nursing, there are numerous career paths you can choose, as nurses will always be needed. This is especially evident when you consider the expected job growth for registered nurses and nurse practitioners—which is much faster than the average for all occupations—as well as overall growth in the healthcare field.
Why Pursue Oncology Nurse Training?
As you start your educational journey, consider the question: Why do you want to be an oncology nurse? It could be because you want to alleviate the suffering of others. It could also be that you would like to experience professional growth, financial rewards, job security, or the low oncology nurse to patient ratio. Truthfully, there are countless reasons to become an oncology nurse.
The future is made brighter by healers like you. All you have to do is take that first step!