Oncology is the branch of medicine that studies, diagnoses and treats cancer. Oncology nursing is a discipline within the field of nursing that specializes in caring for patients with cancer. Nurses that have completed their training can opt to attend special classes that cover the administration of chemotherapy along with advanced coursework covering the infections and difficulties that can occur in this patient group. The Oncology Nursing Society is a professional society for oncology nursing and is the largest professional oncology association in the world. This body publishes practice standards and guidelines for the field of oncology nursing and promotes research and clinical efforts in evidence based cancer treatment strategies.
Beyond the professional and academic certifications that are required in oncology nursing, nurses that choose this path must have the proper temperament to perform this unique work. Oncology nursing requires a mixture of empathy and detachment in order to work in the field for an entire career. While cancer treatments have progressed dramatically in recent years with earlier diagnosis, more effective treatments, and higher survival rates, patients with cancer are often very ill and do die from their diseases. Moreover, the treatments themselves can be quite difficult. Moreover, cancer knows no age limitations; children can be and are sometimes affected by cancer. Oncology nursing requires more than just a degree and additional academic coursework, it requires a strong desire to help a very sick group of patients and to be able to endure the loss of life that occurs more often than in most other fields of nursing.
One of the fundamental roles of a nurse is to be a patient advocate. One way that nurses advocate for their patients is to protect them from excessive suffering. Since many cancer treatments have severe side effects, oncology nurses have the challenge of minimizing the reactions that take place during these lifesaving but difficult treatments. One of the primary objectives of the Oncology Nursing Society has been to establish best practice guidelines for various oncology nursing issues such as pain management, nausea and lack of appetite, and sleep disturbances. They are also at the forefront of dealing with caregiver issues and education making the lives of those that care for cancer patients in the home more manageable. Oncology nurses must be knowledgeable about end of life issues and palliative care since it is to oncology nursing that patients and their families often turn in times when they are making these weighty decisions. Needless to say, oncology nursing covers a broad range of skills and knowledge.
Occasionally nurses that treat cancer patients specialize in one of the major types of cancer: Breast, Gynecologic (ovarian, cervical, etc.), Head and Neck, Kidney and GI, Lung, Prostate, and Hematological cancers such as leukemia. Some nurses also choose to specialize in the treatment of certain patient populations, such as pediatric patients. While this specialization is not required, nurses that have extensive experience with a subset of cancers are ideally equipped to anticipate and ameliorate the side effects that commonly occur with the first line chemotherapeutic agents.