How to Become an Oncology Nurse

Ann Feeney
Updated November 13, 2023
Edited by
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Oncology nurses specialize in treating cancer patients. Learn more about how to become an oncology nurse.
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Oncology nursing is intellectually and emotionally demanding, but can also be rewarding. This form of healthcare makes a tremendous difference to patients’ emotional well-being and health outcomes.

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

How Long to Become:
2-4 years

Degree Required:

Optional Certification:
Oncology Certified Nurse (OCN)

Oncology Nurse Overview

Oncology nurses provide care for patients who are seeing oncologists for diagnosis, treatment, and recovery. They often work in hospitals or in stand-alone cancer centers but can also work in other settings, including hospice and clinics. Typical oncology nurse responsibilities include:

  • Administering treatment under the supervision of a physician
  • Monitoring patients during treatment
  • Educating patients and their families on what to expect and any needed home treatments
  • Assisting patients during discharge from the hospital or cancer center
  • Maintaining patient medical records

Because cancer is such an emotionally-charged and serious condition, oncology nurses must have strong communication skills and be able to show empathy for patients and loved ones. While it can be extremely rewarding to watch a patient recover, you must also be able to deal with the frustration of caring for patients who do not recover.

Learning how to become an oncology nurse requires developing these interpersonal and nursing skills to a high degree.

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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 for and passing the NCLEX, 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. 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. Tuition is generally more affordable for ADN programs, as well.

    However, many higher-level oncology nursing jobs require or strongly prefer to hire BSN graduates. If you don’t earn a BSN now, you may wish to earn one later by completing an RN-to-BSN program.

  2. 2

    Pass the NCLEX to Receive RN Licensure

    The NCLEX-RN is a 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. 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 did not explore oncology nursing through your fieldwork, you can do so now to be sure of your choice.

  4. 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.

Oncology Nurse Education

Consider which degree to earn to become an oncology nurse. An ADN is the fastest path to becoming a nurse, but because oncology nursing can be especially demanding, many employers may prefer the additional knowledge and experience that comes with a BSN. You can also earn a master of science in nursing (MSN) or a doctor of nursing practice (DNP) and become an advanced oncology certified nurse practitioner (AOCNP).


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

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

  • Admission Requirements: Minimum high school diploma or GED certificate; 2.0 GPA, with preference often given to students with a 3.0 GPA; 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. Sooner if applying AP credits
  • 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


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: 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, 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 working 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

Oncology Certified Nurse (OCN®)

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 within the last four years. You also need to participate in continuing education or have recent classroom hours and pass a certification examination.

Certified Pediatric Hematology Oncology Nurse (CPHON®)

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.

Certified Breast Care Nurse (CBCN®)

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.

Blood & Marrow Transplant Certified Nurse (BMTCN®)

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.

Advanced Oncology Certified Nurse Practitioner (AOCNP®)

You can become an AOCNP if you have an RN license and a degree from an accredited nurse practitioner program with a concentration in oncology, or in adult (primary or acute), family (across lifespan), gerontology, or women’s health. If you have a concentration in oncology, you must have 500 hours of oncology nursing experience. With one of the other concentrations, you need 1,000 hours of experience. You must also have two credits of graduate-level education or 30 hours of oncology continuing education.

Working as an Oncology Nurse

Oncology nurses typically work in hospitals or stand-alone cancer centers, but may also work in home health care, ambulatory care, and long-term facilities or hospice care. In long-term care or hospice, you may work with patients with terminal cancer, and in hospice care, your focus may be on helping the patient manage pain rather than on treating the cancer.

Cancer causes physical and emotional issues for both patients and families. You must be able to maintain professionalism while showing empathy and personal concern. Being able to concentrate on how you can help patients and their loved ones, rather than on their suffering, can help protect you from burnout. Keep in mind that your self-care is also a form of patient care, since it helps you to assist them.

Oncology nurses earn a median $81,800 annually and an average of $35.86 per hour, according to Payscale data from October 2023. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), all nursing jobs are projected to grow 6% between 2022 and 2032, faster than the average for all jobs. As the U.S. population ages, oncology nurse jobs may grow faster.

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, over 1.8 million 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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Page last reviewed on October 30, 2023

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