How to Become an Oncology Nurse

February 25, 2022 , Modified on May 9, 2022 · 6 Min Read

Oncology nurses specialize in treating cancer patients. Read on to learn more on how to enter this rewarding field.

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How to Become an Oncology Nurse
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Oncology nursing is intellectually and emotionally demanding, but also rewarding. Nursing makes a tremendous difference to patients' emotional wellbeing and ultimate health outcomes.

As the field of oncology develops, there will always be more to learn. This guide explores how to become an oncology nurse, including education and certification, and what to expect in this career.

Oncology Nurse Overview

Oncology nurses are RNs who work primarily in hospitals or physician offices, though they may also work in home healthcare settings or in residential care facilities. Oncology nurses administer medications, update patient records, care for patients during treatments, such as operations and infusions, and educate patients on their condition and treatment.

As an oncology nurse, you care for patients experiencing stress and physical pain. Therefore, you need exceptionally good communication skills to reassure patients and their loved ones. You must be able to show empathy with their circumstances without becoming emotionally overwhelmed by the situation. While you will experience great satisfaction when patients recover, you must also be prepared for patients who do not recover.

Steps to Becoming an Oncology Nurse

Nurses have to show a full commitment to their continuous professional education to retain their license. A nursing license is obtained by sitting and passing the NCLEX examination, offered by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing. Once you have completed this exam successfully, you can become a registered nurse (RN), after which you can choose to specialize in oncology.

1. Earn an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) or a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN)

You must first attend nursing school, earning either an ADN or a BSN degree. An ADN takes just two years to complete, compared to four years for a BSN, and tuition is generally much more affordable. However, many higher-level oncology nursing jobs require or strongly prefer a BSN. If you don't earn a BSN now, you may wish to earn one later.

2. Pass NCLEX Exam to Receive RN Licensure

The NCLEX-RN exam is a multi-hour multiple choice exam covering nursing practice, hygiene and infection prevention, communication, and legal and ethical aspects of nursing. To become a licensed nurse, you must pass the examination and apply for a state nursing license.

3. Gain Experience in Oncology Nursing

Once you receive your RN license, you can begin your oncology nursing career with an entry-level position. You can choose from a variety of settings and specializations, such as pediatric oncology, surgical oncology, or blood and marrow transplants. If you didn't get a chance to explore oncology nursing in your fieldwork, you can explore now, to be sure of your choice.

4. Consider Becoming an Oncology Certified Nurse (OCN)

Because of the complexity of cancer care, many employers prefer or require certification for certain positions. There are a variety of certifications, including general oncology nursing and specialties, such as pediatric hematology oncology. Most certifications require at least two years of nursing experience and 2,000 hours of oncology nursing experience during the last four years, as well as continuing education hours.

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Oncology Nurse Education

To become an oncology nurse, you can either follow the bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) route, or earn an associate degree in nursing (ADN). The BSN may be the better option, as this is a more detailed qualification that will allow you to stand out from the other applicants once you are ready to start work.

Once you have completed your degree, gained practical experience, and shown a commitment to your continuous education, you can choose to obtain a master's degree as well. An MSN degree can generally be completed fully online, although some do require a practicum.

ADN Degree

An ADN degree takes two years to complete, so many nurses start their careers as ADNs. Most ADN programs have less demanding admissions requirements than BSN programs. If your academic record doesn't reflect your potential, you may find it easier to be admitted to an ADN program.

However, many employers prefer a BSN. You will need a BSN or a bridge program if you want to earn an MSN.

  • Admission Requirements: Minimum high school diploma or GED certificate and at least a 2.0 GPA. Some programs require or give preference to students with a 3.0 GPA and require at least two references.
  • Program Curriculum: Nursing practice; public health, including hygiene and infection control; patient communications; the healthcare system; basic human biology and anatomy; legal and ethical issues.
  • Time to Complete: Typically two years full-time. If you have AP credits, you may finish sooner.
  • Skills Learned: Administering medical tests, including taking a patient's vital signs and drawing blood; keeping medical records; using medical equipment; procedures like inserting a catheter or feeding tube; patient communications.

BSN Degree

A BSN degree typically takes four years of full-time study to complete, less if you have credits from another bachelor's degree or AP credits you can transfer. Admissions requirements vary by school, with some considerably more selective than others.

While a BSN takes more time and money, many employers require or strongly prefer a BSN, especially for higher-level positions. A BSN is also a requirement for earning an MSN.

  • Admission Requirements: At least a 3.0 GPA (some schools require at least 3.25); passing grades in math and science; at least two references; an application that includes a personal essay.
  • Program Curriculum: Nursing practice; public health and social determinants of health; hygiene and infection control; communications; the healthcare system; nursing leadership; biology and anatomy; legal and ethical issues; nursing leadership.
  • Time to Complete: Typically four years.
  • Skills Learned: Administering medical tests, including taking a patient's vital signs and drawing blood; keeping medical records; using medical equipment; procedures like inserting a catheter or feeding tube; patient communications.

Oncology Nurse Licensure and Certification

To be an oncology nurse, you must earn and maintain an RN license. While certification is not legally required to practice oncology nursing, many employers require or strongly prefer certification. Certification demonstrates your commitment to ongoing learning and specialized knowledge of oncology nursing.

RN Licensure

  • Is RN licensure required?: RN licensure is required to be an oncology nurse.
  • How do you obtain RN licensure?: You earn an RN license by graduating from nursing school, passing the NCLEX-RN examination, and submitting an application. Some criminal convictions may prevent you from earning a license, so check your state regulations if you are uncertain.
  • How is licensure maintained?: You maintain your license by continued work as a nurse and through continuing professional education. Certain legal or ethical offenses can lead to losing your license; these vary by state.

Oncology Certification

  • Is certification required?: Certification is not legally required, but many employers require or strongly prefer it for certain positions.
  • How do you obtain certification?: You earn certification through experience in oncology nursing, passing a certification examination, and continuing professional education.
  • How is certification maintained?: You maintain your certification through ongoing education and experience in nursing. If you leave the field for a certain period, you may be required to pass the certification examination again. This will vary by certification.

Types of Certifications for Oncology Nurses

This is the broadest oncology certification, focused on adult oncology nursing. You must have at least two years of nursing experience and 2,000 hours of adult oncology nursing experience in the last four years. You also need to participate in continuing education or have recent classroom hours and pass a certification examination. This certification focuses on caring for pediatric patients with hematological cancers, such as leukemia or lymphoma. For certification, you need two years of nursing experience and 2,000 hours of pediatric oncology nursing experience in the last four years. You must participate in continuing education or have recent classroom hours and pass a certification examination. This certification covers prevention and treatment of breast cancer. You must have at least two years of nursing experience, plus 2,000 hours of pediatric breast care nursing experience in the last four years. Certification also mandates continuing education and passing a certification examination. This certification focuses on blood and marrow transplants to treat certain types of cancer, such as leukemia, lymphoma, hemophilia, and certain solid cancers. For certification, you need two years of nursing experience and 2,000 hours of blood and marrow transplant nursing practice in the last four years. Nurses should participate in continuing education or classroom hours and pass a certification exam.

Working as an Oncology Nurse

As an oncology nurse , you care for cancer patients in various stages of their disease. You administer chemotherapy, help identify ways to treat symptoms, and monitor progress. Furthermore, oncology nurses create a supportive environment for their patients. Often, oncology nurses specialize in fields, such as breast cancer, pediatric hematology, or geriatric cancer.

A large part of your job will be to educate your patients about available treatment options, the procedures they will go through, and what the disease actually means. This involves a lot of studying, as you will always need to be at the forefront of new developments and research.

It takes a special person to become an oncology nurse, as you will work with people whose lives are at real risk and who are often terminal. This means you need to have a lot of emotional stability to be there for both the patient and their family. Often, treatment will fail, and the patient will lose their battle, which is also something you must cope with.

Oncology nurses earn an average $75,610 annually, according to Payscale. While the Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn't track oncology nursing specifically, it projects that RN jobs could grow by 9% between 2020 and 2030. Oncology nursing jobs are available in nearly every hospital in the U.S., as well as private practices and other healthcare settings.

Frequently Asked Questions About Becoming an Oncology Nurse


Are oncology nurses in high demand?

Oncology nurses, like all nurses, are in high demand. The National Cancer Institute estimated that in 2020, 1,806,590 new cancer cases were diagnosed in the United States. As the population ages, the incidence of cancer will likely rise, increasing the demand for oncology nurses.

What skills are important to working as an oncology nurse?

Oncology nurses must be able to administer various kinds of treatments under a physician's direction, monitor patient response to treatment, communicate effectively with patients and their loved ones, and project empathy without becoming emotionally overwhelmed. They must also deal effectively with their own stress, while helping patients and their families cope.

How can I tell if oncology nursing is right for me?

If you enjoy exploring new treatments and technologies, interacting with a diverse team of healthcare professionals, and caring for people under emotional stress and in physical pain, oncology nursing can be a very rewarding career.

What other healthcare professionals do oncology nurses work with?

Oncology care is multidisciplinary. Oncology nurses work with oncologists, surgeons, nursing assistants, physical therapists, pharmacists, and anesthesiologists, depending on their specialty. They also work with non-clinical care providers, such as psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, and hospital chaplains, especially in pediatric oncology.


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