How to Become an Oncology Nurse

Learn about the many opportunities for oncology nurses.

The Basics

What you'll do: You'll provide and supervise care for cancer patients who are either chronically or critically ill. Oncology nurse practitioners monitor their patients' physical conditions, prescribe medication and formulate symptom management strategies. These caring individuals often witness suffering and death, but many thrive on the deep, ongoing relationships they develop with patients.

Minimum degree you'll need to practice: Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN)

Certification: Certification for oncology nurses and oncology nurse practitioners is available from the Oncology Nursing Certification Corporation.

Median annual salary: $65,470*

Career Overview

nurse comforting a patient

Most oncology nurses work in hospitals, including specialty hospitals. Others work in medical offices, ambulatory care centers or provide home health care. Because cancer can happen to virtually anyone, oncology nurses work with children and adults of all ages.

Oncology nurse practitioners are advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs) who have master's degrees. With their additional knowledge and qualifications, these nurses can work in many roles, including direct caregiver, coordinator, consultant, educator, researcher and administrator. Oncology nurse practitioners provide, guide and evaluate nursing care for individuals with cancer, as well as for their families and communities.

Oncology nurses work as part of a team with other cancer care providers and support staff. Their daily activities include the following tasks:

  • Caring for patients diagnosed with cancer
  • Offering education and support to patients' families
  • Administering chemotherapy
  • Managing chemotherapy side effects
  • Assessing ongoing needs and educational deficits

Oncology Nurse Education

Oncology nurses must be registered nurses (RNs). Although you will be best served by eventually earning a 4-year Bachelor's of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree, you may choose to start your career with a 2-year associate's degree or 2- to 3-year diploma. In order to become an oncology nurse specialist, you will need to learn specific cancer care skills through coursework, clinical practice or continuing education. After gaining enough knowledge and on-the-job experience, you can take an exam to become an Oncology Certified Nurse (OCN).

To become an oncology nurse practitioner, you will also need to complete a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree, typically obtained through a 2-year program of graduate study. You can then seek recognition through your state board of nursing as an advanced practice nurse (APN).

As an oncology nurse practitioner, you will need at least 500 hours of supervised clinical practice in oncology (accrued either during or after completion of the master's program) to be eligible to take the certification examination to become an Advanced Oncology Certified Nurse Practitioner (AOCNP). Certification is required in many states and recommended in the others.

Career Outlook

As with all nursing careers, the demand for oncology nurses is expected to increase significantly over the next ten years. This is especially true because the vast majority of cancers are diagnosed in people over 55, making oncology nurses critically necessary as the baby boomer generation ages.

Sources: Nurses for a Healthier Tomorrow; Oncology Nursing Certification Corporation; Nursing Spectrum; U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics 2014-15 Occupational Outlook Handbook; Registered Nurses.

*The salary information listed is based on a national average, unless noted. Actual salaries may vary greatly based on specialization within the field, location, years of experience and a variety of other factors. National long-term projections of employment growth may not reflect local and/or short-term economic or job conditions, and do not guarantee actual job growth.