Skip main navigation

How to become an oncology nurse and support cancer patients

Thinking of specialising as an oncology nurse? Here's everything you need to know to support cancer patients.

Oncology nurse treats cancer patient in hospital bed

Do you want to help cancer patients and their families through one of the most difficult times of their lives? If so, becoming an oncology nurse may be the perfect career for you. 

Oncology nurses provide care to patients who are battling the disease, and support to their families. Although it may be a challenging career, it’s an incredibly rewarding and meaningful one. Read on to find out how to become a cancer nurse and what you can expect.

What is oncology nursing?

Oncology is the aspect of medicine that deals with the study, diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of different cancers. 

Furthermore, oncology nursing, otherwise known as cancern nursing, is a specialised form of nursing that focuses on providing care for cancer patients. They work with patients to provide education and support throughout their treatment journey, from diagnosis through to survivorship or end-of-life care.

They also play an important role in cancer prevention and early detection, helping to raise awareness of the disease and promote healthy lifestyle choices. The Talking About Cancer: Reducing Risk, Early Detection and Myth-busting course by Cancer Research UK teaches you how cancer develops and the different ways in which it can be detected and treated to achieve the best outcome possible. This can include mobile and wearable technologies for those at risk of cancer.

Cancer nurses must have extensive knowledge of the disease, alongside the ability to provide emotional support to patients and their families. They often collaborate with other members of the healthcare team, such as doctors, social workers, and nutritionists, to ensure that patients receive comprehensive care. 

What does an oncology nurse do?

An oncology nurse provides a wide range of services, including cancer screening, education and counselling, symptom management, and wound care. Below are some key areas of practice.

Cancer support

Oncology nurses work with patients to develop individualised care plans, providing support and advice on everything from treatment options to symptom management. They also provide emotional support, helping patients and families to cope with the stress and anxiety of a cancer diagnosis. Plus, they can connect patients with support groups and other resources.

Cancer support can also take the form of cancer survivorship care. Oncology nurses work with patients who have completed treatment to help them transition back to normal life. They provide support and advice on managing side effects and aftermaths of cancer treatment, and the risk of cancer recurrence. 

The Cancer Survivorship for Primary Care Practitioners course by the University of Melbourne covers the key principles of survivorship care, alongside how to support patients through the different stages of survivorship.

Care home nursing

Oncology nurses also work in care homes, providing nursing care to residents with cancer. They work closely with the resident’s GP and other members of the healthcare team.

The type of care provided by cancer nurses varies depending on the needs of the patient. However, they typically provide support with activities of daily living, such as bathing, dressing, and eating. The Care Home Nursing: Changing Perceptions course by the University of Dundee covers the different types of care home nursing, as well as the challenges and opportunities associated. 

If you want to learn more about care home nursing in general, make sure you read our blog post on how to get a job in care to get started in this field.

Palliative care nursing

This is a speciality that focuses on providing comfort and support to patients with life-limiting illnesses. Cancer nurses play an important role in palliative care, providing symptom relief and emotional support. They also work with the patient’s other healthcare providers to coordinate care and ensure that the patient’s needs are met.

Palliative care includes end-of-life care, so cancer nurses must be prepared to provide support during this difficult time. The End of Life Care: Challenges and Innovation course by the University of Glasgow will help you to understand more about end-of-life care and the different approaches available to provide effective and compassionate care.

The benefits and challenges of being an oncology nurse

Cancer nurses play a vital role in the care of their patients. They provide essential support and guidance to patients and their families, helping them to cope with the challenges of a cancer diagnosis. Working as an oncology nurse can be demanding and challenging as they must be able to deal with difficult situations, such as providing palliative care to patients with terminal illnesses. 

To do this, they need excellent communication skills and be able to empathise with their patients. Oncology nurses also need to be able to manage their own stress and emotions, as they may be exposed to difficult situations on a daily basis.

However, the rewards of working as a cancer nurse can be great. Many nurses report feeling a sense of satisfaction from helping others through one of the most challenging times in their lives. Additionally, they often develop strong relationships with their patients and their families. 

This can be a very rewarding experience, as oncology nurses often become a source of support and comfort for those they care for. Plus, having the knowledge and experience to talk and raise awareness about cancer can be very empowering and give a sense of purpose.

Training to become an oncology nurse in the UK

If you’re interested in becoming a cancer nurse, there are a few steps to take, as this is a specialist area. You will need to have all the necessary training and qualifications in order to become a cancer nurse. Before you take the plunge, the Introduction to Nursing: Bioscience, Psychology, and Sociology course by the University of York gives you a broad overview of the field of nursing, as well as the different specialities within the career.

What qualifications do you need?

In the UK, cancer nurses must be registered with the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC). To become registered, you will need to complete an NMC-approved nursing degree or diploma. Once you have completed your nursing qualification, you can then apply to a postgraduate course in oncology nursing.

If you’re looking to pursue a nursing career around other commitments, an online flexible nursing degree might be what you’re looking for. With FutureLearn, you can earn a degree from top universities at your own pace.

Specialising as a cancer nurse

To specialise in cancer nursing, you will need to complete a postgraduate course or degree in oncology nursing. Alternatively, you can undertake a period of supervised clinical practice, which will allow you to gain the necessary experience and skills.

Taking a postgraduate course will typically help you to advance your career more quickly. It will also allow you to gain a deeper understanding of cancer nursing theory and practice. From learning about important data about cancer to gaining a deep understanding of key facts and health messages about cancer, a postgraduate course will give you the knowledge you need to be a successful cancer nurse.

Further online learning

If you want to specialise in a particular area of oncology nursing, there are many online learning courses available. Explore some of these courses to help you gain more knowledge in specific areas:

  • Helping patients recover from breast cancer treatment by the University of Exeter: This course will help you to understand the different types of breast cancer treatment, alongside the side effects and challenges that patients may experience. You’ll learn how to provide more effective support to patients as they recover from treatment.
  • Cancer and the Older Person: Improving Care, Outcomes and Experience by the University of Melbourne: Learn to better understand the unique needs of older people with cancer. You will learn how to improve the care, outcomes, and experience of this patient group.
  • Exploring Cancer Medicines by the University of Leeds: If you’re looking to learn more about the different types of cancer medicines available, this course is for you. You will gain an understanding of how these medicines work, as well as the side effects that they can cause. This course can also be a stepping stone if you’re thinking about becoming a science writer.

Getting a job as an oncology nurse

Once you have completed your studies and training, the next step is to find a job as a cancer nurse. The good news is there are a number of ways to get into a care career in the UK. Search for jobs online, in daily ads, or through recruitment agencies. Alternatively, you can approach hospitals or cancer clinics directly and ask about any vacancies they have. It’s important to keep in mind that there are two sectors of healthcare: the public sector and the private sector.

Careers in the NHS

If you want to work in the public sector, this will mean finding a job with the National Health Service (NHS). The NHS is the largest employer of nurses in the UK. To find a job, search their website or approach your local hospital directly.

Working for the NHS is a great way to gain experience as a cancer nurse. The public sector is a good option if you’re interested in working with a specific group of patients, such as children or the elderly. 

The Start Your Career as a Healthcare Professional: Online Work Related Learning course by the University of Leicester is a 4-week online course that covers a range of careers and job roles in healthcare within the NHS. It’s a great way to learn more about what working in the public sector is like and to find out if it’s the right fit for you.

Careers in the private sector

If you’re interested in working in the private sector, you can work for a private hospital, cancer clinic, or research institute. If working in the research field appeals to you, the Demystifying Targeted Cancer Treatments course by Cancer Research UK outlines the science of targeted cancer treatments and immunotherapies. The course is designed for clinical cancer research nurses, so it’s a great way to learn more about this field.

Alternatively, you can work as a freelance oncology nurse. This option gives you the flexibility to choose your own hours and patients. Working for a private organisation can be more financially lucrative than working for the NHS, as they’re often able to offer higher salaries. However, it’s important to keep in mind that the working hours can be long and the workload heavier.

Final thoughts

If you’re interested in becoming an oncology nurse, there are a few steps involved in making your dream a reality. First, complete your studies and training. Once qualified, start searching for jobs in the public or private sector. No matter which route you choose, you will be making a difference in the lives of your patients as they go through one of the most challenging times in their lives. 

Still not sure whether cancer nursing is the right area of nursing for you? Read about the best courses for careers in care and healthcare and our five top nursing courses. With over 70 specialisms, we’re sure you’ll find the perfect nursing course to kickstart your career.

Related stories on FutureLearn

FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now