How to become an oncology certified nurse (OCN) in The USA?

By ShiftMed Team//Nursing Profession
Oncology nurse helping patient during chemotherapy

If you want to specialize in oncology or care for cancer patients, you can become an oncology-certified nurse. In 2022, 1.9 million people will be diagnosed with cancer in the United States, according to the National Cancer Institute.

With so many patients in need, becoming an oncology-certified nurse is one of the most life-impacting career choices you can make.

All oncology nurses hold certification that marks them as specialized nurses in cancer care. However, they are more than just medical professionals — they are support systems, confidants, and comforts to their patients and families.

If you want to become an OCN, you’ll need first to become an RN, then gain experience working with cancer patients. You’ll also have to take continuing education courses in oncology nursing before you can sit for the OCN exam, administered by the Oncology Nursing Certification Corporation.

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How to become an oncology-certified nurse

If you want to become an oncology nurse, the process starts with earning your nursing degree. You can follow these steps to gain the education and experience you need to earn your oncology nurse certification. 

1. Earn a nursing degree 

Oncology nurses can have associate’s or bachelor’s degrees in nursing. You can choose an associate’s if you want to enter the nursing field sooner. Bachelor’s degrees in nursing expand upon the foundations of an associate’s curriculum. 

A BSN includes advanced coursework in topics like nurse management, nursing theory, research, and pharmacology. 

You can still earn a BSN as an RN if you earn an associate’s first. However, many nurses decide to enroll in accelerated programs after gaining some clinical experience. 

The choice is yours, and there is no wrong option when choosing your nursing degree. The most important things to consider are your availability, budget, and lifestyle right now. You can always further your education after becoming a registered nurse.

2. Pass the NCLEX-RN nursing exam

Before you can work with patients, you must pass the NCLEX-RN exam. This nationally recognized exam is the only certifying exam that makes you a registered nurse. 

Studying for the NCLEX is tough but easier with study guides and test plans. You can even take an NCLEX practice exam to test your skills and pinpoint subjects you need to study a bit more.

Your nursing degree teaches you everything you need to pass the NCLEX, but additional study is required to ensure you’ve mastered the material and are ready to work as an RN.

3. Gain work experience in oncology

The OCN certification exam requires RNs to have at least two years of experience in cancer care. So, start looking for oncology nurse jobs after you get your RN. You may have to work for a year as an RN in a general healthcare setting before you qualify for the more intensive responsibilities in oncology. 

Once you’ve gained enough experience, you’ll have a much better understanding of the field. From there, you can consider specializations; your specialty area will influence what continued education courses you’ll have to take before becoming certified. 

4. Consider specialty qualifications

Oncology nurses can earn four unique certifications through the ONCC: 

  • Oncology Certified Nurse (OCN)

  • Certified Pediatric Hematology Oncology Nurse (CPHON)

  • Certified Breast Cancer Nurse (CBCN)

  • Blood & Marrow Transplant Certified Nurse

All oncology-certified nurses can work with different patients, but choosing a specialty opens the door for you to work in specific settings and with particular patient populations.

Once you’ve decided on your certification, you can take the required continuing education courses. Then, once you’ve met all the eligibility requirements, all that’s left to do is take the exam!

5. Look for oncology-certified nurse jobs

You can start looking for more significant job opportunities now that you're an OCN. OCNs are in demand nationwide, so the sky’s the limit. ShiftMed can help match you with nursing jobs based on your education and schedule.

Can you become an oncology-certified nurse online?

You can complete portions of your nursing degrees online. There are mandatory clinical rotations required in an approved healthcare facility. So, if you opt for an online nursing degree, you’ll still need to work with patients in-person before earning your ADN or BSN.4

As for your OCN requirements, continuing education courses may be completed online, though some may have in-person skills labs as part of their curriculum. 

It’s best to consider nursing education as something you can supplement rather than substitute with online education.

What is the difference between an oncology-certified nurse and a registered nurse?

OCNs and RNs have a lot in common, with one key difference – the OCN holds specialized training and education in caring for cancer patients. 

RNs and OCNs coordinate care plans, check vitals, administer medications, and educate their patients. OCNs do so from an oncology-centered mindset. They take the full-body effects of cancer into account with every step of their treatment and care. 

What positions can you progress to from being an oncology-certified nurse?

If you love being an OCN and want to take your career further, earning a master’s degree could help. With it, you could qualify to become an Advanced Oncology Certified Nurse Practitioner (AOCNP®). 

AOCNPs can diagnose and treat their patients much like a physician. They can also prescribe treatments and medications and write care plans that nurses will follow. Oncology nurse practitioners are essential to their patients’ care teams; they coordinate with oncologists, OCNs, and surgeons to help their patients get the best possible care. 

If you want to help patients even more as an OCN, becoming an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN) as a nurse practitioner could be the answer. 

Do your oncology-certified nurse exam qualifications expire?

Yes, you must renew your OCN credentials every four years. Renewing your OCN is not the same as renewing your RN, which may be every 3 or 4 years, depending on your state. You will have to separately renew both your OCN and RN to practice medicine legally.

There are 3 OCN renewal processes to choose from:

  • Option 1 – Complete practice hours and professional development courses to earn ILNA points

  • Option 2 – Complete practice hours and retest 

  • Option 3 – Earn points and retest 

ILNA, or Individual Learning Needs Assessment, helps nurses become more proficient in their careers. It ensures that they build upon their strengths and improve any weak areas in their care. 

Your test results will determine what points you need to earn to renew again. This ensures you’re being given a personalized opportunity to grow as a nurse and provide your patients with the most up-to-date cancer nursing. 

How much do oncology-certified nurses make?

As an oncology-certified nurse, you could earn up to $145,000, according to the latest data from Zippia. Six-figure earners are the most experienced in the field and likely work in areas with a high demand for oncology nurses. 

We found that the national average salary for an oncology-certified nurse is $80,517.45. 

Read more about how much oncology registered nurses make throughout the United States. 

How long does it take to become an oncology-certified registered nurse?

If you have no prior nursing experience, becoming an OCN takes 4 to 5 years. However, if you’re already an RN, you may be able to become an OCN in as few as two years. 

Without any background in nursing, you’ll need to complete your primary nursing education first. Earning your degree takes 2 to 4 years. Additionally, you need at least two years of experience working with oncology patients before you are eligible to take the OCN exam. 

Read more about how long it takes to become an oncology registered nurse.

FAQs about oncology-certified nurses

What does an oncology nurse do?

Oncology nurses specialize in treating patients in cancer wards and cancer centers. They can work with patients of all ages, administering pain medications, cancer drugs, and supportive therapies. They also help educate family members on their loved one’s condition and how they can help them at home.

An oncology nurse also works with oncologists to ensure patient care reflects their needs. In addition, they routinely monitor and update patients’ files to provide doctors with the most up-to-date information. 

Is oncology nursing a good job?

Oncology nursing is a wonderful profession because you get to care for people at such a critical period in their lives. You are one of the most essential healthcare professionals in their lives as they go through treatment and experience all the effects of cancer. 

Oncology nurses also support their patients emotionally. Going through cancer is such a life-changing experience. Some patients are facing terminal diagnoses and coming to terms with them. In every case, you stand by them, offer support, and provide emotional care that’s just as important to them as physical treatment. 

As far as salary goes, oncology nurses get paid higher on average than RNs, so becoming an OCN can increase your earning potential. 

How many hours do oncology nurses work?

Shifts for oncology nurses vary. Some work in hospitals, so they may work 3 or 4 12-hour shifts a week. 

Others work in outpatient cancer centers to have a more traditional 8-hour workday. It’s not uncommon for oncology nurses to work 40 hours a week; many often work night shifts, weekends, and holidays. 

What skills does an oncology nurse need?

In addition to patient assessment, IV skills, and drug administration, oncology nurses must be emotionally resilient and good at handling stress. Seeing your patients going through the physical and psychological pain of cancer can be distressing; you watch their families suffer, feeling helpless, and it can make you feel lost, too.

So, being a good oncology nurse requires the ability to sit with people in their discomfort and share in their pain. Empathy is an invaluable nursing skill, especially in oncology. You must always be able to relate to your patients and support them.