What is an Oncology Certified Nurse (OCN) in the USA?

By ShiftMed Team//Nursing Profession
Oncology-certified nurse treating a patient

Cancer is one of the most prevalent and life-threatening diseases in the world. Treating cancer patients is much more than just overseeing chemotherapy. It offers education, emotional support, and hope to patients and their loved ones.

Oncology-certified nurses (OCNs) are registered nurses with specialized training in treating cancer.

An OCN can specialize in adult or childhood cancers and trains to treat a wide range of patients in intensive settings. As any healthcare professional knows, cancer is much more than a single disease. It causes widespread symptoms that impact a person’s quality of life.

Oncology-certified nurses specialize in treating both cancer and its secondary conditions. According to the Oncology Nursing Certification Corporation, as of July 2022, there are 32,212 OCNs in the United States.

What is the difference between an oncology certified nurse (OCN) and a registered nurse (RN)?

An OCN is an RN with certification in oncology treatment. They have undergone additional education and clinical training to treat cancer patients among various populations. They perform the same tasks as registered nurses, such as administering medication, monitoring patients’ health, and performing certain medical procedures. 

Their additional experience with oncology patients makes OCNs specialists in cancer treatment.

There are also different types of oncology nurses who choose to focus on particular types of cancer. They can obtain certification as certified breast cancer nurses (CBCNs) or certified pediatric oncology nurses (CPONs). 

RNs with advanced credentials (master’s or doctoral degrees) can pursue careers as an advanced oncology certified nurse practitioners (AOCNP) or advanced oncology certified clinical nurse specialists.

What qualifications does an oncology-certified nurse need?

To qualify as an OCN, a nurse must complete a minimum of 2,000 clinical hours in oncology treatment and have at least two years of experience as an RN. They must also complete ten contact hours of continued education in oncology or take an academic elective course in oncology within three years of applying for certification. 

You can learn more about OCN eligibility on the ONCC website.

What work does an oncology-certified nurse do day to day?

OCNs work exclusively with cancer patients in hospitals. They spend their days tending to the needs of admitted patients and those who come into cancer centers for regular chemotherapy and radiation treatments.

Responsibilities of oncology-certified nurses include:

  • Administer chemotherapy drugs through IV lines

  • Identify any risks or complications of treatment, and apply appropriate interventions

  • Support patients’ emotional and mental health as they undergo treatment

  • Offer reassurance to loved ones

  • Educate patients and family members about various conditions, symptoms, and treatment procedures 

  • Perform patient assessments and medical evaluations

  • Plan and execute care based on individual patient's needs and medical histories

  • Collaborate with physicians, nurses, and ancillary staff members to provide the highest level of care to patients

  • Ensure patients always receive appropriate supportive services, such as physical therapy, mental health counseling, social work, and palliative care 

As an integral part of someone’s cancer treatment, an OCN is far more than “just a nurse.” They provide comfort, confidence, and positivity in people’s lives. They help give them strength, share in their sorrows, and work with empathy and compassion in everything they do.

Where do oncology-certified nurses work?

An oncology-certified nurse works in hospital cancer centers and outpatient centers. They are key figures in the cancer treatment and recovery process. Collaborating with physicians and oncologists, they help patients make it through their treatments with less pain, fear, and anxiety. 

A positive attitude greatly influences how someone copes with their cancer diagnosis. It also has physical benefits — such as lower blood pressure and stress hormones. A good OCN always strives to look after their patients’ emotional well-being just as much as their physical health.

What is it like to be an oncology-certified nurse?

Working with extremely ill patients or those with terminal diagnoses isn't easy. You know that not all of your patients will survive, and it can be emotionally traumatic to watch them suffer and be unable to help them.

However, there is also great pride and joy in helping patients as they move through treatment. No matter the outcome, you are there in that moment to lessen their pain and lighten their burdens.

You also act as a source of hope and strength for patients and family members. Emotions such as guilt, anxiety, fear, and anger are all common among patients and their loved ones. Few things in life are as difficult as coping with a cancer diagnosis.

An OCN creates space for people to grieve and feel. They don’t force positivity, but they try to help people feel more optimistic whenever possible.

While losing patients is never easy, there is also an immense joy when treatment is successful. You get to stand by and cheer as your patients ring the bell, signaling the end of a difficult chapter and a new beginning in their lives.

How much do oncology-certified nurses make?

Based on the latest data from Payscale, the average OCN salary is $85,000 annually. Their certification qualifies them for higher pay than an RN who works in oncology, whose median salary is $79,444.

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

Advantages and disadvantages of a career as an oncology certified nurse

There are pros and cons if you consider pursuing an oncology certification. If you’re passionate about helping cancer patients, earning your certification can help you treat them with the greatest skill and education.

But there are downsides to this career path, which are important to know before committing yourself to it entirely. That being said, we hope this list helps you make the most informed decision about the best next step in your career.

Advantages of choosing a career as an oncology certified nurse

1) Advanced education and skill set

By earning your OCN certification, you’ll gain a deeper understanding of ontological care. This skill set and educational background will help you treat patients with a deeper level of understanding.

2) Celebrate cancer victories

Being a part of someone’s healthcare team means getting to celebrate their wins. Whether it’s a negative test result or their last day of chemo, there are many small moments that OCNs are honored to share with their patients.

3) Higher salary than RNs

OCNs can earn more money than RNs without additional certification. Earnings can continually increase over the course of your career as you become more experienced. 

4) Help patients make the most out of their lives

Whether their prognosis is poor or not yet determined, OCNs are by their patients’ side to help them experience the highest quality of life they can today. When someone receives a cancer diagnosis, the uncertainty of the future can be one of the most difficult parts to cope with. OCNs know this and strive to make each day a little easier and more meaningful to patients today.

Disadvantages of choosing a career as an OCN

1) Coping with grief

You will always witness panic, fear, anxiety, and grief. You yourself experience great emotional stress and profound sadness when cancer test results don’t come back as you hoped or your patients’ treatment is ineffective. 

Sometimes, you will be there when people find out they only have a few months or weeks to live. It is never easy, and it doesn’t ever stop hurting. While you can take pride in your ability to stand bravely beside people during difficult times, it is also important to understand the effect this can have on you.

2) Losing patients

Along with the grief and emotional pain involved, losing patients to cancer is one of the worst aspects of the job. In addition to watching them near the end of their lives, you also have to witness their loved ones mourning their illness and impending passing.

3) Exposure to chemotherapeutic drugs

Exposure to chemotherapy can pose health hazards to nurses. Although these agents are life-saving for people affected by cancer, they are highly toxic to anyone who comes in contact with them. When compounds are vaporized and drip, there is a heightened risk of contact. Prolonged exposure can even increase the risk of developing cancer yourself.

How to become an oncology certified nurse

To begin your OCN career, you must complete an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in nursing. Then, you must pass the NCLEX exam and register with your state’s board of nursing to obtain your RN license.

You must work for at least two years as an RN before applying for OCN certification. OCNs must also take continuing education courses and have at least 2,000 hours of clinical experience with oncology patients before taking their certification exam.

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

Frequently asked questions about oncology certified nurses

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

It takes at least four years to become an OCN, but most nurses will take 5 to 7 years to become fully certified. The exact time it takes to become an OCN depends on your current education and nursing experience. 

How long is OCN certification good for?

ONC certification lasts for four years. Like your RN license, you will have to renew it periodically to stay appropriately certified. 

Can an RN administer chemotherapy?

Chemo infusion nurses are trained to administer chemotherapy drugs. However, most employers prefer to hire OCNs to handle cancer patients' treatments.