A Tribute to Oncology Nurses

Specialty Pharmacy Times, May/June 2014, Volume 5, Issue 3

Oncology nurses help improve patient outcomes through their dedication and expertise.

Oncology nurses help improve patient outcomes through their dedication and expertise.

It was 1983 when I moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan, and started a new nursing position working midnights as a “float nurse.” I had not been there long when I was directed to “float” to the oncology unit. I was not pleased with this assignment as I had no idea what an oncology nurse was and was unsure of how to take care of cancer patients. As I received report, my assignment included a gentleman diagnosed with metastatic bone cancer. He was in extreme pain and being transported to radiology for evaluation of a possible fractured hip. We needed to move him from his bed to the transport cart. I could see in his eyes his pain, anxiety, and a feeling of helplessness.

What I witnessed next defined the course of the next 30 years of my oncology nursing career. I watched as a team of nurses prepared the transport cart so that it would not be such a hard mattress for him to lie on. As they prepared to lift him, they smiled at him with reassurance that he was in the best of hands and he would not feel any pain. This team of nurses then lifted this gentleman as if he were on a cloud and transferred him with such gentleness and the most compassion I had ever seen. I worked with this team of oncology nurses that night, listening to their conversations, feeling their true dedication. I wondered, who were these nurses? Where did they come from? What kind of training did they receive to be so caring, compassionate, and knowledgeable? The most important question I asked myself was, “How can I become one of them? I want to be an oncology nurse! ”

So what is an oncology nurse?

An oncology nurse provides care for cancer patients. The practice of oncology nursing encompasses the roles of direct caregiver, educator, consultant, administrator, and researcher. It extends to all settings where patients experiencing cancer receive health care, education, and counseling.

Debby J., RN, OCN, states, “Working in oncology can be sad, but it is so rewarding to be able to help the families through such trying times. I love the interaction with patient and family. Our care is very personal. You are not just in and out of their lives.”

Jeanne S., RN, OCN, writes, “Oncology nursing is a call that not many nurses can answer. There’s something amazing about being an integral part of a patient’s journey through his or her cancer treatment. I have treated so many brave patients who face cancer head-on with all of the determination and will that it takes to endure a very trying part of their lives. Through all of the ups and downs of their treatment, the nurse caring for them becomes one of their lifelines and sometimes the only constant they have in that raging sea of uncertainty. I get a strong sense of pride knowing that as an OCN [oncology certified nurse] I have the knowledge and skill it takes to help those patients navigate safely through that raging sea.”

“People have asked how I can do it and I simply say that my patients humble me. They allow me to be a part of something bigger than myself, to see the strength and perseverance it takes to take every day as another day, to engage themselves in the battle against something that scares even the strongest of individuals.”

The role of the oncology nurse developed following the 1971 National Cancer Act. This act was the stimulus for a comprehensive program focused on reducing the incidence, morbidity, and mortality of cancer. As cancer survival rates began to improve, nursing experienced an opportunity that expanded roles and acknowledged the importance of professionalism in oncology nursing. Educational programs that focused on oncology were developed as a specialty nursing area.

The practice of oncology nursing now spans from prevention and acute care through rehabilitative and palliative supportive care. Oncology nurses work in specialties such as hematology/oncology, radiation therapy, surgical oncology, bone marrow transplant centers, and palliative care. These specialty areas have expanded even further into biotherapy, breast oncology, gynecologic oncology, head and neck oncology, and cancer genetic counseling.

The practice of oncology nursing requires a cancer-specific knowledge base and demonstrated clinical expertise in cancer care beyond that acquired in a basic nursing program. The oncology nurse actively participates in professional role development including continuing education, quality assessment and improvement, and the review and clinical application of research findings. Oncology nurses demonstrate their competency by becoming a chemotherapy certified nurse, an OCN, an advanced OCN (AOCN), or a certified pediatric oncology nurse (CPON).

Oncology nursing practice includes inpatient or outpatient settings in hospital systems or community cancer center settings, home health care, hospice, public health, and community nursing. These nurses develop private practices, work at physicians’ offices, and teach at schools of nursing.

Oncology nurses care for the sickest of the sick, which can be very stressful and emotionally difficult. These nurses get to know their patients over the years and develop their own family unit. If the treatment doesn’t help, the oncology nurse shares in the patient’s disappointment; if the nurse cannot access their vein, he/she feels the patient’s discomfort and despair. Being close to so many patients, it can become very difficult when one of their patients dies after helping them through months or years of treatment. When patients invariably become friends, losing them is never easy.

Despite all the challenges, every nurse who works with cancer patients shares the common denominator of passionate care, determined to enhance the quality of their patients’ lives.

Today we are experiencing many victories in the fight against cancer. Patients are surviving cancer and living longer. Oncology nurses have played a significant role in this success. They are side by side with their patients, assisting them with the management of their therapy and side effects, through the good and the bad.

Thank you to all the oncology nurses who continue to give hope to their patients and keep smiling! SPT

About the Author

Cherylann Gregory, RN, BSN, is founder and president of the Specialty Pharmacy Nursing Network (SPNN) and has more than 30 years of experience as an oncology/infusion nurse. Cherylann serves on the Specialty Pharmacy Times editorial board.