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Oncology Nurse Career Overview

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What is oncology nursing? Oncology nurses specialize in treating patients who have cancer. Oncology nurses find this specialty demanding yet rewarding, especially as cancer treatments improve.

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What Does an Oncology Nurse Do?

ADN or BSN required
certification optional

Oncology nurse jobs involve caring for patients as part of a team led by oncologist physicians or nurse practitioners (NPs). They may also supervise nursing assistants. Key skills and responsibilities for oncology nurses include:

Primary Responsibilities

  • Monitoring patient progress and updating patient records
  • Administering treatment prescribed by physicians and NPs
  • Educating patients on treatment and preventing recurrence
  • Facilitating patient-physician communication
  • Providing emotional and psychological support to patients and families

Key Skills

  • Empathy
  • Communication
  • Collaboration
  • Continual learning

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Where Do Oncology Nurses Work?

Oncology nurses primarily work in hospitals, standalone cancer treatment facilities, hospice care facilities, and physician’s practices.


Oncology nurses in hospitals work with inpatients and outpatients, assist with treatments and operations, and monitor patient progress.

Standalone Facilities

In standalone facilities, these nurses facilitate communications and update health records with primary care providers, educate patients and families, and prepare patients for discharge.

Hospice Care

Oncology nurses working in hospice care facilities assist terminal patients, administer palliative treatments, and support patients psychologically.

Why Become an Oncology Nurse?

Oncology nurse jobs can be both emotionally rewarding and stressful, especially for pediatric oncology nurses. However, as cancer care continues to improve, oncology nursing presents more rewarding opportunities for employment. Salaries for these nurses typically rank above national averages.

Advantages to Becoming an Oncology Nurse

  • Ability to help patients and their families when they need it most
  • High level of trust and respect in communities
  • Salaries well above the national average

Disadvantages to Becoming an Oncology Nurse

  • Can be emotionally stressful
  • May be blamed by families for negative outcomes
  • High burnout risk

How to Become an Oncology Nurse

Graduate with a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) or an associate degree in nursing (ADN).
This is the first requirement for becoming an oncology nurse. A BSN takes four years to complete, while an ADN requires two years. Many jobs require either a BSN or for a nurse with an ADN to acquire a bachelor’s within a certain period.

Pass the NCLEX-RN exam to receive registered nursing licensure.
This national exam includes questions about conditions, treatments, patient psychology and communication, and legal/ethical issues. It takes up to six hours.

Gain experience in oncology nursing practice.
Registered nurses (RNs) can begin oncology work in entry-level positions. After two years as an RN and 2,000 hours of oncology work, a nurse can apply for certification as an oncology certified nurse (OCN).

Improve your job prospects by becoming an OCN.
Certification is not mandatory for entry-level oncology nurse jobs but is helpful. Certified nurses demonstrate their value when competing for oncology nurse specialty jobs and advancing in their workplaces.

Advance your career with a graduate degree.
Many oncology nurses become advanced oncology certified nurse practitioners by earning a master of science in nursing (MSN) and receiving advanced certification. NPs have more autonomy and earn higher salaries.

Concentrations and Certifications

  • Pediatric Oncology Nurse

    Certified pediatric oncology nurses care for children and adolescents who have cancer. They also provide treatment and emotional support for patients and families.

  • Pediatric Hematology Oncology Nurse

    Pediatric hematology oncology nurses specialize in treating children with leukemia and other cancers that affect the blood. They often administer chemotherapy.

  • Breast Care Nurse

    Breast care nurses support patients during breast cancer treatment and help to educate them on preventing recurrences.

  • Blood and Marrow Transplant Nurse

    Blood and marrow transplant nurses help patients prepare for transplants, administer transplants, monitor progress, and educate patients on their ongoing needs.

How Much Do Oncology Nurses Make?

Oncology nursing jobs, like nursing jobs in general, pay above the U.S. average, with an average salary of $74,090. In 2019, the highest paid 10% of all RNs earned a median salary of more than $111,200.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects RN employment to grow faster than average, increasing 7% from 2019-2029. With cancer rates projected to increase as the U.S. population ages, oncology nurse jobs will likely keep pace.

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Frequently Asked Questions

  • How many years does it take to become an oncology nurse?

    It takes two years to earn an ADN and four years to earn a BSN. Becoming an OCN requires at least two years of experience as an RN, though entry-level oncology nurse jobs do not necessarily require certification.

  • Do oncology nurses get paid more than other nurses?

    Oncology nurse jobs pay an average annual salary of $74,090, virtually the same as the median salary for all nurses at $73,300. Oncology nurse salaries can vary based on experience, certification, geographic location, specialization, and many other factors.

  • What kinds of career advancement opportunities are available for oncology nurses?

    Oncology nurses can become oncology nurse practitioners by earning MSN degrees and passing the certification examination. NPs earn higher salaries and take on greater responsibilities in patient care.

  • What types of questions are on the OCN exam?

    The OCN examination addresses the aspects of oncology care nurses are most likely to provide such as early detection, symptom and pain management, and the psychological impact of a cancer diagnosis. The multiple-choice test is three hours.

Resources for Oncology Nurses

  • Oncology Nursing Society ONS has more than 35,000 members. It offers professional development and continuing education opportunities, publishes newsletters and a scholarly journal, and offers scholarships and grants.

  • Oncology Nursing Certification Corporation ONCC develops and administers eight oncology nurse credential programs and approves continuing education programs for credit. This company has also established an oncology nurse code of ethics.

  • Association of Pediatric Hematology/Oncology Nurses APHON provides education and professional development, offers a mentoring match program, conducts research, publishes evidence-based practice guidelines, and administers grants.

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Portrait of Nicole Galan, RN, MSN

Nicole Galan, RN, MSN

Nicole Galan, RN, MSN is a registered nurse who started in a general medical/surgical care unit and then moved to infertility care where she worked for almost 10 years. She has also worked for over 13 years as a freelance writer specializing in consumer health sites and educational materials for nursing students. Galan currently works as a full-time freelancer and recently earned her master’s degree in nursing education from Capella University.

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