Oncology Nurses On The Front Lines Of Cancer Care

Cancer is poised to become a global epidemic. According to a World Health Organization report issued this spring, the disease is a “human disaster” in the making, with cases expected to jump 57 percent worldwide over the next 20 years.

Back in the United States, the prognosis isn’t so dire, but cancer continues to be a significant health concern. Even more concerning may be an anticipated shortage in oncologists and oncology nurses to treat patients.

“We are faced with a critical shortage of oncologists and oncology nurses that is projected to grow as increasing numbers of professionals retire,” says Mary Gullatte, president of the Oncology Nursing Society.

Gullatte notes that not only are more providers needed to treat newly diagnosed patients, but also to care for an increasing number of cancer survivors.

Oncology nurses needed to provide survivor care

The good news is cancer survival rates continue to trend upward as medicine and technology improves. According to the National Cancer Institute, among those diagnosed with cancer in 1973 at any site in the body, less than half would be alive five years later. By 2003, nearly two-thirds of newly diagnosed individuals lived at least five years.

At that rate, the American Association of Cancer Research says the number of cancer survivors will grow 31 percent in the next 10 years. By 2022, there will be 18 million survivors in the United States.

“There is a growing population of cancer survivors,” explains Gullatte. “Early detection, better treatment options and symptom management contribute to this trend.”

While those are certainly encouraging statistics, they are also a big reason those in the field of oncology are concerned about a nursing shortage. Along with more survivors comes a need to provide specialized post-treatment care and monitor for recurrences.

Nurse shortage may mean less specialization

The American Association of Colleges of Nursing reports 55 percent of registered nurses are older than 50 and more than one million will reach retirement age in the next 10-15 years. At the same time, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) notes job growth for registered nurses will be faster than average, with demand for these health care professionals increasing 19 percent nationwide between 2012 and 2022.

For Gullatte, those statistics raise a concern that more nursing students will choose to generalize rather than specialize.

“Nurses are aging and not enough individuals are going into the profession,” she says. “This impacts the pool of nurses choosing specialty practice and, in particular, oncology nursing.”

An opportunity to make a difference

For oncology nurses like Gullatte, the decision to work in cancer care means a chance to make a meaningful difference in the lives of patients.

“I have practiced as an oncology nurse for over 30 years and cannot imagine not doing so,” she shares.

Duties may vary depending on an individual’s particular job, but oncology nurses are very often on the front lines of cancer care. An oncology nurse might be responsible for any of the following tasks:

  • Administering chemotherapy
  • Drawing blood and taking specimens for lab work
  • Coordinating care among multiple oncologists (i.e. radiation, surgical and medical)
  • Educating patients and advocating on their behalf
  • Referring families to additional resources

“The feeling of satisfaction and professional fulfillment of providing care for patients with cancer is like none other,” says Gullatte. “Nursing is not just a job, it is a professional career where caring is the foundation of what one does every day.”

Getting the right education

As specialized practitioners, oncology nurses need to have knowledge that goes beyond that taught to general practice nurses.

“There should be education and training about the etiology, histology, and pathophysiology of cancer as well as treatment modalities, symptom management and survivorship care,” notes Gullatte.

However, students entering the field begin their education in the same way as any other future nurse. That may be with an associate degree in nursing or a specialized diploma program. Another increasingly popular option is to earn a Bachelor of Science in Nursing.

Certification may increase pay potential

After working as a registered nurse in the field, individuals can choose to earn a voluntary certification to demonstrate their competency. The Oncology Nursing Certification Corporation offers six certification options for oncology nurses:

  • Oncology Certified Nurse
  • Certified Pediatric Hematology Oncology Nurse
  • Advanced Oncology Certified Nurse Practitioner
  • Advanced Oncology Certified Clinical Nurse Specialist
  • Certified Breast Care Nurse
  • Blood & Marrow Transplant Certified Nurse

The requirements for each vary, but the basic certification – Oncology Certified Nurse – requires a year of work as an RN, including 1,000 hours in an oncology setting, and 10 hours of nursing education in oncology.

“We further emphasize the need for continuous and lifelong learning in cancer care,” says Gullatte regarding the need for ongoing education.

Nurses who choose to get certified could see their income potential increase. The ONCC notes a 2006 study found certified nurses had annual incomes $9,200 greater than those of un-certified nurses. In 2012, the median annual salary for registered nurses in the U.S. was $65,470, according to BLS data.

However, a paycheck isn’t necessarily what drives oncology nurses like Gullatte. Instead, it’s a chance to put a personal face on cancer care and make a meaningful difference in the lives of patients facing a devastating illness.

Mary Gullatte, PhD, RN, ANP, BC, AOCN®, FAAN and President of the Oncology Nursing Society
“WHO: Imminent global cancer ‘disaster’ reflects aging, lifestyle factors,” CNN, February 4, 2014, Tim Hume and Jen Christensen, http://www.cnn.com/2014/02/04/health/who-world-cancer-report/
“Why Should You Get Certified?” Oncology Nursing Certification Corporation, http://www.oncc.org/TakeTest/WhyGetCertified (Accessed March 30, 2014)
“Cancer Trends Progress Report – 2011/2012 Update,” National Cancer Institute, http://progressreport.cancer.gov/doc_detail.asp?pid=1&did=2009&chid=95&coid=927&mid(Accessed March 30, 2014)
“Number of Cancer Survivors Expected to Increase to 18 Million by 2022,” American Association for Cancer Research, March 27, 2013, http://www.aacr.org/home/public — media/aacr-in-the-news.aspx?d=3038
“Nursing Shortage,” American Association of Colleges of Nursing, http://www.aacn.nche.edu/media-relations/fact-sheets/nursing-shortage (Accessed March 30, 2014)
“Registered Nurses,” Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 Edition, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/registered-nurses.htm (Accessed March 30, 2014)