Switching to Oncology From Another Nursing Specialty

illustration by julianna paradisi

illustration by julianna paradisi

One of the most enjoyable aspects of my recent job transition is meeting new colleagues. Not only are they a great group of nurses, but for the opportunity to exchange information.

During one such discussion, the topic was how we learned oncology. Unlike myself, a former PICU nurse, some had started out in oncology as new grads. We all agreed that nursing school does not provide much preparation for oncology nursing. The conversation then turned to “how I became an oncology nurse.” 

It occurred to me that other nurses might be seeking information about how to break into oncology nursing.

I offer this advice:

  • If you want to transition from another nursing specialty into oncology, do some research about the skills the two have in common. For instance, skills carrying over from the ICU to an oncology unit are the use and maintenance of central lines (although you’ll probably need to learn accessing implanted ports), and whole body assessments. The interpretation of lab values, and acting on them is as important in oncology as the ICU. Conditions such as SIAH, SVC syndrome, and more are common to both specialties, as is pain management. Highlight these similar skills during a job interview.
  • Consider outpatient oncology. Much of cancer treatment is now done on an outpatient basis. While outpatient nursing is very different than inpatient, it is as rewarding and challenging.
  • In the beginning, focus on one or two common cancers (breast cancer and colon cancer for instance). Develop a familiarity with their treatments, particularly the chemo regimens. From there, expand your knowledge base while gaining experience.
  • Earn oncology CE. This provides two benefits: First, it guides your focus on one or two cancers. Second, it provides certificates you can add to a resume for an oncology job interview. You can find oncology related CE at the Oncology Nursing Society (ONS.org) and The Oncology Nurse Community (TheONC.org) website offers a library tab, which is a great resource for nurses seeking oncology CE.
  • Immerse yourself in oncology culture. Become a national member of the ONS. Sign up for electronic newsletters.
  • Cultivated local networking. Join the local ONS chapter, and participate. I meet nurses seeking oncology positions all the time at these meetings, which are often attended by oncology unit managers too. Sign up as a member of a cancer department’s team for fundraising events, another way to meet and network with oncology nurses and managers while helping others.

What advice do you have for nurses, new or experienced, desiring to break into oncology nursing?