Oncology nurses care for people of all ages who are diagnosed with cancer. Oncology is a challenging field in which nurses support patients, families, and caregivers through the stress of diagnosis and treatment, and the anxiety of many uncertainties brought on by the disease, including facing mortality.
Part One What is an Oncology Nurse?
The oncology field today is different than in the early days of cancer treatment, with many more treatment options, better pain control, and reduced treatment side effects. The science is dynamic and continually evolving, with many new therapies on the horizon. Many people are making the transition from cancer patient to cancer survivor. In short, there is often hope for recovery, or for living with the disease. Oncology nurses have important roles to play all along the cancer care continuum.
As an oncology nurse, you’ll be on a path of career-long learning that offers challenges, financial rewards, and professional growth. If you have a desire to get to know patients and the nuances of their needs and care, oncology nursing may be a good career choice. You’ll often have the chance to develop deep relationships with people as you care for them throughout their cancer journey.
Part Two Oncology Nurse Salary
As with nursing in general, your salary as an oncology nurse will depend on your level of education, years of experience, size of employer, and where you live and work. In May 20196 the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported the mean annual income for registered nurses as $73,300, with a range from $52,080 to $111,220 per year, though conditions vary based on area.
Pay differentials can boost nursing salaries. These differentials are typically added to your base hourly rate for evening or night shifts, charge duties, or for mentoring new nurses. Higher salaries are often offered for having a BSN or MSN, or for obtaining certification in the field.
Sign-on bonuses may be available depending on the demand for nurses. In hospital work settings, such as perioperative areas, or oncology-surgical floors, nurses are eligible for overtime pay.
Be sure to look at the big picture when you consider a compensation package. Also consider continuing education or tuition reimbursement, health insurance coverage, and the number of paid days off. Travel nursing can boost salary for adventurous nurses with flexibility in location and lifestyle.
Many employers offer additional compensation for achieving certification in your nursing specialty. Oncology nursing offers a range of certifications to choose from, depending on your interests and level of practice. More information about these certifications is included in the answer to question 4: How Do I Become an Oncology Nurse?
According to the BLS, in May of 2018, the highest paying states for nursing were as follows:
- California: $106,950
- Hawaii: $98,080
- Disctict of Columbia: $92,350
- Massachusetts: $92,140
- Oregon: $91,080
In the same year, the BLS ranked the highest mean annual salaries for nurses, and the top 10 were in California. The top three were as follows:
- Salinas, CA: $131,710
- San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward, CA: $128,990
- San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA: $128,610
Advanced practice nurses command higher salaries than registered nurses, and this holds true for nurse practitioners who specialize in oncology. The (Bureau of Labor Statistics) reports that in 2019, the median annual income for nurse practitioners was $109,820, with the lower 10% of NPs earning $81,410 or less and the upper 10% of NPs earning $152,160 or more, though conditions vary by area.
As with any employment situation, oncology NPs should consider the comprehensive package when evaluating any job offer, such as local cost of living and total benefits package (health and dental insurance, retirement benefits, educational benefits, and others). Nurse practitioners who wish to set up a private practice will need to evaluate the local market, obtain professional advice from their accountant and legal professionals, and create a solid business plan.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that in 2016 the highest paying states for nurse practitioners were:
- California: $138,660
- Washington: $126,920
- Hawaii: $124,000
- New Jersey: $123,810
- Minnesota: $122,850
Advanced practice salaries are affected by the same factors that shape RN salaries nationwide.
Part Three Oncology Nurse Career Outlook
The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that nursing employment will grow at a rate of 12 percent through 2028 – much faster than the average for all jobs. There is a shortage of nurses, with baby boomer nurses nearing retirement and the growing health demands of our aging population.
To discover opportunities in oncology nursing visit our Job Board.
In its report, Cancer Facts and Figures 2017, the American Cancer Society estimates that in 2017, over 1.6 million people in the U.S. will be diagnosed with cancer, which excludes noninvasive and several other cancers. The disease is the second leading cause of death next to heart disease, and about 1650 people die from it every day (a total of about 600,920 people each year).
Cancer affects many body systems and all age, racial, and cultural groups. As the risk for many cancers increases with age, the demand for oncology nurses will likely increase in areas such as screening and prevention, health status monitoring, symptom management, direct nursing care, and patient/family/caregiver education.
Part Four How Do I Become an Oncology Nurse?
To become an oncology nurse you must first complete an entry-level nursing program. Medical-surgical nursing is a foundational course offered in nursing programs and provides an overview of care for many diseases and procedures, including cancer and its treatment.
To become a registered nurse you must:
- Graduate from a two- year program for an associate’s degree in nursing, a three-year program for a diploma in nursing (usually hospital-based), or a four-year college or university program leading to a bachelor’s degree in nursing
- Take the RN licensing exam after graduation, also known as the NCLEX (National Council Licensure Examination). The NCLEX is a nationwide examination for the licensing of nurses in the United States and Canada
Once you pass this exam, you may apply for your first nursing job
If you wish to pursue an advanced practice role in oncology nursing, the path is typically to choose a patient population as your focus, with a subspecialty in oncology. For example, some MSN programs in adult or gerontology nursing offer the oncology nurse practitioner subspecialty.
Certification in Oncology Nursing
Certification also helps nurses demonstrate their knowledge in oncology. The (Oncology Nursing Certification Corporation) offers six different certifications. Certification in the field boosts your confidence, keeps your knowledge up to date, helps you provide the best possible patient care, is an advantage in the competition for jobs, and can enhance your annual salary.
The following certifications are available, depending on your interests and experience:
- Oncology Certified Nurse (ONC®)
- Certified Pediatric Hematology Oncology Nurse (CPHON®)
- Certified Breast Care Nurse (CBCN®)
- Blood and Marrow Transplant Certified Nurse (BMTCN®)
- Advanced Oncology Certified Nurse Practitioner (AOCNP®)
- Advanced Oncology Certified Clinical Nurse Specialist (AOCNS®)
*Require a master’s degree in nursing. See 2017 Oncology Nursing Certification Test Candidate Handbook to review available pathways to certification.
The ONCC provides a handy online tool to help you calculate if you have enough oncology nursing experience to sit for a certification exam. You can also download content outlines for specific exams and take one cost-free sample test to help you prepare.
You can also download the Test Candidate Handbook, review certification requirements for each exam, and learn how to best prepare on exam day. Another online tool from ONCC helps you find a testing center near you, and year-round testing makes it easy to choose a time that’s compatible with your schedule.
Part Five Top Oncology Nurse Programs
This list is based on a number of factors including:
- Acceptance rate, when available
- Only ACEN and CCNE approved programs are eligible
Our selection panel is made up of 3 Registered Nurses with years of experience and multiple degrees:
- Tracy Everhart, MSN, RN, CNS
- Tyler Faust, MSN, RN
- Kathleen Gaines, MSN, BSN, RN, BA, CBC
Oncology nurses only require an active nursing license and experience. However, many nurses choose to earn post-graduate education in oncology nursing, whether that be a certificate or a graduate degree. Because of the range of programs and the fact that individual nursing pathways and careers take various forms, the top 10 oncology nurse programs are ranked in no particular order.
Annual Degree Cost: $22,056 (estimated)
Program Length: 1 year
Duke University has some of the best graduate nursing programs available, and the MSN with a specialization in oncology is no exception. The program meets standards set by the Oncology Nursing Society Scope and Standards for Advanced Practice in Oncology Nursing and takes just one year or less to complete. During the program, nurses earn 224 clinical hours and nine credit hours on top of the regular MSN requirements. However, anyone who already has an MSN can enroll directly into the oncology specialization program.
Certificate Cost: $11,300
Program Length: 1 year
While some schools offer degrees with specializations in oncology, schools like Loyola University Chicago instead offer a certificate in oncology. The oncology nursing certificate program is intended for anyone with a BSN and is available entirely online. The program consists of just four courses, so even part-time students should have no trouble completing the certificate in one year or less. However, LUC does require all applicants to first gain some professional oncology nursing experience.
Certificate Cost: $10,084
Program Length: 1 year
Completed either as part of an MSN or as a post-MSN certificate, the University of Alabama at Birmingham's oncology specialization only accepts students during the summer. However, nurses complete their courses online, though UAB does require some on-campus intensives. Studying part-time and year-round, oncology students should be able to complete the certificate in just one year.
In-State Annual Cost: $12,930 Out-of-State Annual Cost: $26,310
Program Length: 3 years
Perfect for nurses with little to no oncology experience, the University of Southern Florida's BSN-DNP with a focus in oncology/adult-gerontology primary care nurse practitioner comes in both a part-time and full-time format. The length and cost of this program vary based on how quickly students complete their courses and earn clinical experience. To qualify, applicants should become licensed RNs in Florida.
Annual Degree Cost: $48,795
Program Length: 2 years
An Ivy League school with some of the most well-respected graduate nursing programs in the nation, Yale University's MSN with a concentration in oncology allows nurses to pair a nurse practitioner specialization with oncology. Because it's an NP program, students need to complete hundreds of clinical hours, all of which must be done in-person. Because different NP specializations set different credit and experience requirements, this program could be longer or shorter than two years.
Annual Degree Cost: $69,246
Program Length: 2-4 years
New York, New York-based Columbia University is definitely one of the more expensive options for nurses looking to complete an oncology program. However, Columbia provides students with flexibility, allowing them to choose a specialization in either adult or pediatric oncology. The program comes as a DNP, so both BSN and MSN holders can apply. Of course, those with an MSN and active an NP license can complete this program quicker, reducing the total cost of the doctoral degree.
Certificate Cost: $700
Program Length: 10 weeks
The University of Southern Indiana offers one of the fastest, and most affordable, certificates in oncology. The 10-week program uses online courses, and students interact with each other via email and online boards. However, to become eligible for the Oncology Nursing Certification, students do need to complete 50 contact hours. The program is meant for current nurses and healthcare providers, but it doesn't require a BSN, MSN, or any specific degree.
Certificate Cost: $76,020
Program Length: 1 year
The University of Pennsylvania's School of Nursing ranks among the best in the nation. However, studying at a quality institution comes at a price. The adult oncology specialty certificate is pricey, but it does include 250 hours of clinical experience. Upon completing the program, nurses qualify for both the Oncology Certified Nurse Practitioner or Advanced Oncology Certified Clinical Nurse Specialist certifications. UPenn accepts current graduate students and practicing nurses with a master's degree.
Certificate Cost: $10,020
Program Length: 1 year
Created for anyone with an MSN and national certification, Felician University's adult oncology nurse practitioner post-master's certificate program prepares students for the Adult Oncology Nurse Practitioner exam. This 12-credit program requires at least 500 clinical hours completed at the Hackensack Meridian Health John Theurer Cancer Center in Hackensack, New Jersey. Anyone interested in the program must also have an active RN license in New Jersey.
Certificate Cost: $25,488
Program Length: 2 years
Great for anyone looking to become an oncology NP in California, Azusa Pacific University's oncology nurse practitioner certificate requires 24 units to complete. Nurses complete courses in the program in the evening and earn at least 12 clinical hours each week. While not required, students in the program can also count credits toward a DNP. The program also connects students with nurse oncology mentors, and that could help nurses find their next position.
Part Six What Does an Oncology Nurse Do?
Oncology nurses care for individuals, families, and communities, and the role has expanded to include many aspects of care:
- Cancer education and prevention
- Nurse navigation
- Nursing management
- Direct patient care
Oncology nurses work in many healthcare settings: hospitals, cancer centers, clinics, physician offices, home care agencies (including palliative and hospice care), hospice centers, and extended care facilities.
In addition to variety in work locations, there are many areas of oncology in which to focus. These include:
- Bone marrow transplantation
- Breast Oncology
- Gynecologic oncology
- Genetic counseling
- Radiation oncology
- Surgical oncology
In many work settings, oncology nurses will learn safety precautions regarding caring for patients undergoing procedures and treatments where there is potential exposure to radiation and toxic substances, including chemotherapy.
Part Seven Continuing Education Requirements for Oncology Nurses
Clinical practice and continuing education requirements for renewing a nursing license, certification, and advanced practice certification vary by state and credentialing agency. Check with your state board and professional organization for the rules on keeping your RN license and certification up to date.
You can also visit our CE Guide for details.
Part Eight Oncology Nursing Resources
Learn more about oncology nursing by searching the web and talking with nurses currently working in the field. Tap into social media, visit your local nursing school to chat with an advisor, and visit the websites of professional organizations for oncology nursing. Some of these organizations include:
- Oncology Nursing Society
- International Society of Nurses in Cancer Care
- Society of Gynecologic Nurse Oncologists
- Hospice and Palliative Nurses Association
- Association of Pediatric Hematology-Oncology Nurses
- National Association of Pediatric Nurse Practitioners
- Academy of Oncology Nurse and Patient Navigators
Part Nine Oncology Nurse Jobs
Many sources can get you started in your search for oncology nursing positions. First, check the “Careers” pages of websites for hospitals and agencies that interest you. Many online resources are available for job searches, including nursing social media sites, career sites, and dedicated nursing career sites such as our job board.
You can also check for opportunities with comprehensive cancer centers, so named by the National Cancer Institute (NCI), and members of the National Comprehensive Cancer Network. These organizations have a strong commitment to advancing cancer science and treatment as well as to providing leading-edge patient care.
Oncology nursing is a rewarding field, with challenges on many levels: ever-changing knowledge and technology requirements in a continually evolving area of medicine, and having to face emotionally charged situations as part of one’s daily work. The oncology nurse has the opportunity to grow both professionally and personally, forming deep and trusting relationships with patients and families over time.
While self-care and maintaining personal/professional life balance are critical for all nurses, it is especially important for the oncology nurse to regularly practice self-care, incorporating activities that bring physical, emotional, and spiritual renewal. Oncology nurses make significant contributions to caring for the patients they serve, the healthcare system, and society as a whole.