Becoming an Oncology Nurse: Job Description & Salary Info

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Learn about an oncology nurse's job description, salary and education requirements. Get straight talk about the pros and cons of a career as an oncology nurse.
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Pros and Cons of a Career as an Oncology Nurse

As a nurse who cares for cancer patients, many of whom are very sick, an oncology nurse's work is personally rewarding. Becoming an oncology nurse can be a solid career choice, but you should also consider all the pros and cons before making a decision.

Pros of a Career as an Oncology Nurse
High job-growth occupation (19% from 2012-2022 for all registered nurses)**
Above average salary ($68,000 median annual pay)***
Can be personally rewarding*
Can work in many settings (hospitals, nursing homes, healthcare facilities)*

Cons of a Career as an Oncology Nurse
Can be stressful*
Must earn state license**
May work nights, weekends, holidays**
Often physically tiring, poses risk of injury**

Sources: *Nurses for a Healthier Tomorrow, **U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, ***

Essential Career Information

Job Description

Oncology nurses are registered nurses who specialize in the treatment and care of patients with cancer. In addition to the usual nursing roles of giving medicine, observing patients and helping with diagnostic tests, oncology nurses may supervise chemotherapy or radiation treatments.

They may teach patients and their families about the disease and its treatment. Because of their specialized knowledge on the care of cancer patients, oncology nurses often serve as resources to other staff members.

In this nursing specialty you may work in hospitals, home healthcare, physicians' offices or long-term care facilities, as well as provide end of life care at hospices. Like all nurses, oncology nurses at in-patient facilities may work nights, weekends and holidays. Nursing work can be physically taxing, and you risk injury from lifting patients and moving equipment.

Career Prospects

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicted employment of all types of registered nurses, including those who work in oncology, would see a 19% employment growth from 2012-2022, faster than average for all occupations. The BLS attributed the growth to several factors, including an aging population.

According to the American Cancer Society, 77% of all cancers are diagnosed in people age 55 and older. This points to an increased need for oncology nurses because the BLS estimated that by 2030 one out of five U.S. residents would fall in that age category.

Salary Info

According to, the median annual salary for an oncology nurse was about $68,000 in September 2015. The website also reported during the same period that most oncology nurses earned between $54,000 and $84,000.

What Are the Requirements?


There are no special college degree programs for oncology nursing; however, some programs offer oncology nursing as a specialty area. Oncology nurses, like all registered nurses, generally have three options for training. They can earn a bachelor's degree in nursing or an associate's degree in nursing or complete a nursing diploma program offered by a hospital or other institution.

It usually takes four years to earn a bachelor's degree and 2-3 years to earn an associate's or complete a nursing program. Nursing students study medical terminology, physiology, chemistry, nutrition and behavioral sciences. They spend a good portion of their training in a hospital, getting hands-on practice in all areas, including oncology.


Every state, along with the District of Columbia and U.S. territories, require that registered nurses be licensed. In order to earn a license, a nurse must successfully complete an approved nursing program and pass the National Council Licensure Examination for registered nurses (NCLEX-RN). States may have other requirements, as well.

Chemotherapy Training

Many employers require that their oncology nurses complete a chemotherapy/biotherapy course from the Oncology Nursing Society (ONS). This program offers information on procedures and new drugs to nurses who administer chemotherapy. The nurse must take a refresher course every two years.

What Employers Are Seeking

Job postings for oncology nurses show that employers prefer someone with experience in caring for cancer patients. Some postings mention specific credentials the oncology nurse must hold, such as the chemotherapy card from the ONS or the ONS hematology certification, issued by the Oncology Nursing Certification Corporation (ONCC). Here is a sampling of what real employers were looking for in jobs postings from April 2012:

  • A children's hospital in Texas needed a licensed nurse who was chemo and hematology certified. Someone with an associate's degree was acceptable, but the employers preferred a bachelor's degree.
  • In Connecticut, a hospital group needed a nurse navigator to ensure quality care for patients at two hospitals. This nurse needed at least five years experience and excellent communications skills. Oncology experience was preferred.
  • A cancer hospital in New Mexico was seeking an oncology nurse with two years oncology experience, a chemotherapy provider card and solid intravenous (IV) medication skills. The employer would like someone with experience in the intensive care unit or emergency room.
  • A medical group in California sought a nurse with at least a year of oncology experience and a year of ambulatory or acute care nursing experience. The ideal candidate would have a chemotherapy card and the ONCC Oncology Certified Nurse (OCN) designation.

How to Stand Out in the Field

Earn Certifications

Nurses can heighten their skills and employers can be assured of competent staffing through certification. The ONCC reported that a 2006 salary survey showed certified nurses made an average of $9,200 a year more than their non-certified peers. In addition to the OCN designation, RNs can earn certification from the ONCC as a Certified Pediatric Hematology/Oncology Nurse (CPHON) or Certified Breast Care Nurse (CBCN). You will need to meet experience and education requirements and pass an exam to become certified.


Becoming a specialist in a certain area of cancer care will help you stand out in the field. You could specialize in areas such as cancer prevention, radiation, pediatric oncology or head and neck cancer. The ONS offers many courses on various aspects of cancer care that will improve your skills and meet continuing education requirements to renew your certifications.

Other Career Paths

Advanced Practice Nurse or Certified Clinical Nurse Specialist

If you'd like more authority, you can become an Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (APRN) or an Advanced Oncology Certified Clinical Nurse Specialist (AOCNS). APRNs can act independently of a physician, while the AOCNS designation shows advanced knowledge. The ONS reports that patients under the care of an APRN report more satisfaction and have fewer hospital stays and lower healthcare cost. You'll need a master's or a doctoral degree and will have to meet certain experience requirements as well as pass an examination. You must show continuing education credits to renew your certification.

Licensed Practical Nurse

If the education requirements of becoming a registered nurse don't appeal to you, you could consider a career as a licensed practical nurse (LPN), sometimes called a licensed vocational nurse. An LPN can perform basic tasks such as taking vital signs, bathing patients and changing bandages. LPNs work in all areas of a hospital, including the oncology unit. You won't make as much money as an R.N - the median salary was about $41,000 in May 2011, the BLS reported - but you'll need only a year of training at a vocational school or community college.

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