Oncology nursing continues to evolve, say experts

Many opportunities in this growing area

Contemplating a career in oncology nursing? Now may be the time.

“The demand is huge,” said Emory University professor Dr. Deborah Watkins Bruner, when asked about the current need in the workforce. “There’s tremendous opportunity both for clinical oncology nurses, and for nurse practitioners and nurse scientists in oncology.”

According to a 2012 study by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, it projects that employment of RNs in general will increase to more than 3.2 million jobs through 2022.

Before you hunker down and hit the books or take steps toward oncology certification, read what Pulse found out as we chatted with a pair of educators, both with backgrounds in the field.

Lanell Marie Bellury, Ph.D., RN, AOCNS

Associate Professor

Georgia Baptist College of Nursing of Mercer University

On what initial steps practicing nurses should take:

“The best resource is the Oncology Nursing Society (ONS). They have a very robust organization, a lot of resources for nurses and many educational offerings. It’s also a way to connect with other nurses in oncology. In the Atlanta area, there are five chapters of ONS. The metro Atlanta chapter, which I’m a member of, has more than 400 members and monthly meetings throughout the year for networking. The ONS has a special rate for students and new graduate nurses. They also have two journals, which have a whole lot of practical information for a nurse who’s looking into oncology. Then you’ve got the learning resources like its Cancer Basics course. Most hospitals now require the ONS Chemotherapy Biotherapy course as a prerequisite to administering chemotherapy. That’s another opportunity to grow and learn.”

On her career path:

“When I first graduated from nursing school, I wanted to be an ICU nurse. At the time, that was the epitome of a great nurse. …When I went on my first interview at Emory, I told them that my goal was to get a position in the ICU. The recruiter looked at me and said, ‘Oh, you’re interested in some intense sort of nursing? You’d really like the hem/onc unit.’ So I just happened into oncology, because I thought it was my path to what I wanted. So I worked at the hematology unit at Emory University Hospital for the first three years of my career. We mainly took care of patients with leukemia. And I was sort of hooked. I just fit really well with the kind of care and the kind of patients. Most of my career I’ve worked with cancer patients. I took a few years off to have children, and then went back and had a career at a different hospital in their oncology unit. I finished my Ph.D, in 2011 and moved into academia. My program of research is around the needs of older cancer survivors.”

On oncology and mortality:

“The thing that concerns most people is the mortality and dealing with end-of-life issues. And my experience there has evolved over the years. But the way I really approach it now is that time of life is very sacred. It’s quite an honor to be a part of it as a family walks through it. You get to provide the expertise you have that might make it a little easier for those going through it.”

Deborah Watkins Bruner, Ph.D., RN, FAAN


Neil Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing of Emory University

On her career path:

“I started out in nursing in the early 1980s, and there weren’t any specialized oncology units. So the cancer patients were mixed in with all patients. I had a specific patient, a woman, who had lung cancer. She would sit on the edge of the bed, because if she laid back she couldn’t breathe. One day when I walked in she said, ‘Do you hear this noise in my chest? I know what it is. It’s the death rattle. And no one will sit with me. Not the nurses, not the doctors, no one.’ So I sat with her. …After that I gravitated toward oncology patients. I felt that they had very special needs that in the early 1980s weren’t being met. Back then we were still having conversations about whether you should even tell patients their diagnosis.”

On the evolution of the field:

“There’s been a tremendous evolution. There are specialized units, and special training is given and required. There are intense treatment regimens that include chemotherapy, surgery, radiation therapy and immunotherapy. And all of these, especially in combination, cause severe side effects that oncology nurses are trained to assess and treat.”

On career motivation:

“It’s always been a privilege working with cancer patients. They’re vulnerable, and to be able to help and in any way mitigate their anxiety and their symptoms is rewarding. The needs are holistic, and you need to be able to not only help the patient, but help the patient in the context of their family. Medicine tends to treat disease and nurses tend to treat people wrapped around that disease.”