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The Oncology Nurse

Your Guide for the Cancer Journey

by Virginia R. Martin, RN, MSN, AOCN

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An oncology registered nurse is an essential partner for a person with a cancer diagnosis. The nurse who specializes in cancer care provides comfort, commitment, and a professional guiding hand to the person with cancer and his or her family as the plan of treatment is outlined after a diagnosis is confirmed. Oncology nurses are found in a variety of settings – hospitals, outpatient hospital departments, private oncologists’ offices, radiation therapy departments, infusion centers, home healthcare, hospice, and community health agencies. An oncology nurse’s scope of practice may include varied clinical settings, clinical trials management, nursing research, education, case management or navigation, and helping people overcome barriers to care. An oncology nurse’s roles range from critical care, such as in bone marrow transplant intensive nursing care, to cancer screening, detection, and prevention.

The essential components of the nursing role include assessment, education, and coordination of care. During the assessment phase, the nurse will assess your emotional and physical status, gather your health and medical history, and gain an understanding of your and your family’s knowledge of the diagnosis.

Oncology nurses can help you sort through the wealth of resources and narrow it down to the most useful information.

Author of Article photo

Virginia Martin

As the plan of care is outlined, the nurse is able to educate people with cancer and their families on the tests ordered, the treatment plan to be administered, and the potential treatment side effects. During this phase, the oncology nurse builds a relationship with the person undergoing treatment and his or her family.

Patient education materials an oncology nurse can provide include printed, visual, and audiovisual components. Internet access complements some of the more traditional educational approaches and support to people with cancer. Patient diaries offered by the oncology nurse provide opportunities for people to keep track of symptoms and questions and can provide continuity of information between appointments with different healthcare providers. Oncology nurses can explain all these educational strategies, help you and your family sort through the wealth of resources, and help you narrow it down to the most useful information.

The oncology-nursing role in the area of care coordination is now more important than ever. Tests and visits take place in multiple sites and settings, with numerous providers. Communication may be suboptimal. The nurse is able to track and coordinate multiple doctor’s visits, providing an invaluable service.

Ideally, phone contact with the oncology nurse should be a first line of communication during the cancer journey. Having the nurse available to answer questions and provide symptom management is essential for the continuous coordination of care. Identifying problems before a crisis arises is essential, and the nurse can provide the link needed to avoid costly hospitalizations.

As the care plan is carried out, the nurse can evaluate its clinical effectiveness and the effect of illness on the whole family. He or she can help to ensure that you and your family are a part of the decision-making process during treatment. Open communication, close observation, and careful evaluation all are essential to good care. The oncology nurse plays a key role in achieving optimal patient-centered care.

The oncology-nursing specialty is a relatively young one. In 1975, the Oncology Nursing Society was founded to bring together nurses who care for people with cancer and to meet the educational needs of this group of nurses. The specialty organization of oncology nurses has contributed to cancer care by expanding its knowledge base and providing ongoing high-quality professional education and scientific inquiry. Oncology nurse certification is available through the Oncology Nursing Society. Certification is the standardized process by which a nongovernmental organization validates an individual registered nurse’s qualifications and knowledge of practice in a defined clinical area. Certification in oncology nursing is voluntary, and it shows a commitment of the individual nurse to a high level of care for their patients and others involved in the cancer care process.

Having an oncology nurse by your side will help you to cope more effectively, reduce the anxiety of a frightening new diagnosis, and adjust to the realities of treatment and illness.

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Virginia Martin is the clinical director of ambulatory care at Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia, PA, and she serves on the Oncology Nursing Society’s Board of Directors.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, May/June 2010.