The Heart Behind an Oncology Nurse

“Cancer.” Hearing that word can be earth shattering-- a diagnosis that we would not wish on our worst enemy. However, the world of cancer treatment is changing at such a rapid rate. New advances are being made each and every day. With the advances in treatment, oncology patients are living longer and longer—even with advanced disease. Not only are they living, but with a better quality of life, thanks to the advances made in premedication and symptom management. Therefore, cancer doesn’t always have to be as scary as it sounds anymore. The oncology care team plays a very important role in this matter—especially nurses. The relationship between the patient and the oncology nurse is so special.

May is Oncology Nursing Month. A month to showcase the skills, the knowledge, the compassion and the lifelong learning that is vital to a career as an oncology nurse. The Oncology nurses at Schneck Medical Center are no exception to that. Read on, as they share a glimpse into the life of an oncology nurse.

Describe a day in the life of an oncology nurse.

“A day in the life of an oncology nurse…It always amazes me what the community assumes it is like to be an oncology nurse. I hear, “Oh, how do you do it, doom and gloom?” In reality, it is a blessing and an honor to be an oncology nurse. Our patients allow us to celebrate their journey with them, good and bad. They truly become family. Our patients are so appreciative and caring of us that it fuels me. In many ways, our patient take care of us, which in return makes it so incredibly easy to care for them. Life is good as an oncology nurse and our patients ground us. Helps us remember our purpose in guiding them with their goals.”

-Heidi, BSN, RN, OCN

What are some of the most important jobs/tasks that oncology nurses do?

“Everything we do for our patients as oncology nurses is important. It is hard to choose just a few—from starting IV’s, accessing ports, getting PA’s, drawing labs, hanging chemo, giving vaccines, coordinating care with other offices, etc. However, I think the most important part of our job is making our patients feel as comfortable, calm and welcome as possible. Our patients and their family/friends become part of our own. We care for them, we laugh with them, and we cry with them. So, to me, the most important job/task we have as an oncology nurse is to help lighten the load and worry for our patients.”

-Samantha, LPN

With the constant advancement in cancer treatments, how does that affect your job as a nurse?

“Working in oncology, you have to have the want and will to learn. Cancer treatments are changing every single day. There are many oncology drugs on the market that are being approved for new indications, or the studies show that they are working better than another drug, so it will change to a first line therapy for that diagnosis, etc. There are new drugs coming out on the market all the time for the many different types of cancers. Biosimilars are being created for many of the oncology drugs that we give now also.

Cancer treatments have already changed so much since I started working in the oncology department. As a nurse, we have to keep up with this information so we can do our jobs, and help educate our patients. If a new drug is being used, we utilize our drug representatives to come in and educate us on how to give it to the patient, what side effects to look for, what kind of reactions they can have, etc.

If we have questions on any of the hematology and oncology diagnoses, our physicians are great at coming to speak at our meetings to explain why we do things certain ways, and the differences between the diagnoses. As the Nurse Navigator, I joined the AONN, (Academy of Oncology Nurse and Patient Navigators) where I can keep up to date on some of the changes. They also have a conference twice each year to bring us together to educated and network with other cancer centers. Education never stops in oncology. We have several opportunities to listen to podcasts, seminars, or even join classes through ONS and AONN. As an oncology nurse, you also have to know that you will never know everything, but there are resources out there that can help you when you need it.”

-Katie, BSN, RN, OCN

What is the hardest part of being an oncology nurse?

“As an oncology nurse, we see patients at some of the worst times in their life. We see them with pain, nausea, depression, and all things in between. Day after day and week after week, as our patients come back for treatment we have the blessing of being there for our patients. We are their shoulder to cry on, their person to vent to, and their team to rely on. We see our patients as grandparents, moms, dads, and members of our community. We get to hear all about their daily life outside of cancer treatment. As we all know, not all cancer treatments have a happy ending. As nurses, we get attached to our patients and seeing the ones we care about-- and have been through so much with, decline is so unbelievably hard. Our patients imprint our lives forever and that is both the best, and one of the hardest parts of being an oncology nurse.”

-Abby, ASN, RN

How would you describe the role of the oncology nurse?

“The role of the oncology nurse in patients’ lives and care is vast and ever-changing. While some of the oncology nurse’s roles are obvious—administering chemotherapy, monitoring pain and other side effects and coordinating care with the entire medical team, some of them are not. Oncology nurses are teachers. Oncology nurses are counselors. And maybe most importantly, oncology nurses are friends. They help not only the patient, but the patient’s family and friends understand the disease and the treatment process. The oncology nurse mourns the setbacks with their patients but also celebrates and rejoices in the milestone, the birthdays, the anniversaries. The oncology nurse knows if Johnny is playing football or if Sally is running track this spring—they know when their patient’s daughter is due with her second baby and when their son will be home from deployment. They know when, what and how to say all the things that their patient’s need to hear. Bottom line- oncology nurses play a powerful, intricate and necessary role in some of the most challenging times in cancer patients’ lives.”

-Allison, BSN, RN

Do you have any advice to give that would help patients and their caregivers better communicate with their oncology care team?

  • “Write down any questions that you think of when you think of them. Bring a list of your questions with you to your doctor appointment so you can be sure to have them all answered.”
  • “Designate a single contact person. Whether it be you (the patient), your daughter, son, granddaughter, etc. Choose one person to be the main contact for all communication between the patient and the office. Having that one person be the main contact will help keep anything from being missed—appointments, lab draws, treatments, testing, etc. It will just make things go much more smoothly.”
  • “If you call in to ask a question, pass on information, etc., make sure to only leave that message with one person and allow them a bit to call back before calling again. Leaving the same message on multiple lines/with multiple people can get confusing for the staff as well as the patient. Much like having a single contact for the patient, it is nice to try to have a single contact in the office to make communication go more smoothly and efficiently.”

-Dana, BSN, RN, OCN

What made you decide to become an oncology nurse?

“Even as a little girl, I knew that I wanted to do something to “help others”. It took a few years to really hone in and decide what exactly that would look like or what I would be when I grew up. There were several ideas tossed around—of course a nurse, a pediatrician, a marine biologist, a veterinarian, etc. When I was in high school though, my mom was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer. As a teenage girl, experiencing that news about her mom, scared did not even begin to describe it. She went through chemo and having a bilateral mastectomy with reconstruction. The whole time she was on that journey, the nurses were what stood out the most to me. They were there to comfort her, to teach her, to encourage her-- and of course to treat her. The nurses were who seemed to calm the fears of not only my mom, but of my dad, my brother and myself also. They helped make sense of things.

At that point, it was decided in my mind—I wanted to be a nurse when I grew up. I wanted to give back in the way the nurses had given to my family. Of course I wanted to be an oncology nurse at that time. I knew that starting out in such a specialized area though would be hard, so I started out on the medical/surgical RN float team and did that for two years before moving into oncology. Being here at Schneck, serving the communities that I grew up in, it has just come full circle. I feel so blessed to care for this patient population.”

-Karlie, BSN, RN, OCN

What is the best part of being an oncology nurse?

“The best part of being an oncology nurse is the relationships we develop with our patients and their families. Many patients come in routinely for treatment and we are able to form a special bond with them, sharing in their life moments outside of their cancer diagnosis. As oncology nurses, we are teachers, friends, supporters and strong advocates for our patients throughout their journey. Cancer is scary and it is an honor to be with our patients through this tough time. Also, watching our patients ring the bell when they are finished with treatments is an especially sweet moment we get to share with our patients.

-Tammy, LPN

What are some ways, as a nurse, that you advocate for your oncology patients?

“I think we do this daily, sometimes without even realizing it. Cancer is such a scary thing for anyone and it has affected everyone personally in some shape or form. Through our patients and families voices, we work on best practices always- the work never stops. We all play a role in delivering care to our patients. The group of nurses here at the Cancer Center all have a special heart. The main asset as a nurse is listening to our patients and their families. From there, we attempt to meet every patient where they are at in that moment.”

-Kristin, MSN, RN, NE-BC

Getting to know and care for these patients is both the best and the hardest part of our job—because as mentioned previously, not all cancer journeys have a happy ending. In this line of work, we have learned to appreciate the day to day. We celebrate all of the in between moments. We enjoy the time that we have-- and are honored to care for these patients, whether it be for curative or palliative intent. Being an oncology nurse is such a blessing. Our patients touch our lives and bless us in so many ways. We can only hope that we do the same for them.