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A cancer diagnosis may be one of the most harrowing, heartbreaking and testing events of a person’s life. While the support of friends and family is paramount at this time, so is the expertise provided by oncology nurses. These nurses are there to not only share a kind word or offer a hand to hold but also manage the distribution of medication, assess patients’ needs from head-to-toe, help schedule treatments and provide comfort.
Oncology nurse and Chamberlain 3-Year Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) graduate Sandra Brown shares why she is drawn to this profession, what it takes to succeed and what a day in the life of an oncology nurse looks like.
What kind of patients are you caring for?
Most of my patients have been diagnosed with some form of cancer. I have taken care of patients who have had breast, prostate, endometrial, lung, pancreatic and neuroendocrine cancers. Most patients are there due to a complication like neutropenic fever, persistent nausea and vomiting, dehydration or a reaction to chemotherapy. Some are post-op cancer patients who have just had the cancer or an organ (or part of an organ) removed. I have also had patients come in who recently discovered a mass and need to have further testing to determine the type and staging of the cancer.
How did you become interested in oncology nursing?
I was my father-in-law’s caretaker when he had cancer and watching the nurses interact with him got me interested in it. When he got sick he said ‘you have to promise me you’re not going to stop nursing school. No matter what happens to me, you don’t stop.’ I shied away from oncology for a little bit when he passed away, but then I came back to it because I felt like I needed to take care of people who have cancer. I wanted to do this in honor of him.
What is a typical day in the oncology unit like?
The most patients that I have on any typical day is four. My work day begins around 6:45. I find my assignment for the day and then proceed to look over the SBAR (situation, background, assessment and recommendation) report that came with my assignment. After the 7 am huddle at the nurses’ station, it’s time for the bedside shift report with the night nurse and line reconciliation on the computer. After I have taken responsibility for my patients, I gather the supplies I think I need for the day and pull medications.
Around 8 am I go back in to see my patients, do the head-to-toe assessment, check morning vital signs again and then pass out morning meds. After I have seen all my patients, I go and finish documentation on my patients, unless I get a call to come in to a patient or family member. I usually try to spend some time talking and getting to know my patient more on a personal level instead of basing all of my knowledge off of what I have been told or read. I typically finish around 10 am.
Every even hour after my initial visit, I go in to see my patient and check them for pain, personal needs, etc. I also give any other medication they may need throughout the day during those times. Around 4 pm, I try to sit down and update my care plan, chart my evaluation notes for the day and do the acuity assessment for the day on each patient. From 6:30 – 7 pm, we tie up loose ends and at the 7 pm huddle the bedside shift report begins.
What is the most challenging part of this specialty?
When a patient says goodbye to loved ones when they know they’re not going to make it. If you’re a good nurse, they’ll say goodbye to you too and it’s just the hardest thing.
What is your favorite thing about oncology nursing?
Getting a chance to get to know my patients and their families would be my favorite part of oncology nursing. They are the bravest, most encouraging and often spiritual people you will meet. They are really strong despite cancer and chemo destroying their bodies.
What would make someone a good fit for this specialty?
Being a very caring and compassionate person. It’s not going to be easy but you can do it. In oncology nursing, it’s like family. We see what’s going on so we try to be helpful and try to be there to help each other in the moment.
What words of advice would you give someone who is considering a career in oncology nursing?
I would say that just like birth, death is a part of life. It may not be the happiest time but be caring and compassionate. Being organized will help when you have to give a patient chemo and you still have three other patients. Always ask questions and always ask for help! This is the hardest for most nurses. I would prefer you to ask questions than to guess.
Why did you choose Chamberlain?
Chamberlain provided the necessary tools I needed for my BSN. If I didn’t understand something, the tutoring center was always there. Nurses who had the experience were able to help me and instructors were always available with their door open when I needed them. The tools were there for me to be a successful student and to be an extraordinary nurse.
What are your plans for the future?
I’m getting my MSN from Chamberlain in the Nurse Educator Track. Chamberlain was good to me during my undergrad. There was also no GRE requirement and there’s an alumni discount, so it was a no- brainer. My professors at Chamberlain were so great with me so I want to do the same for others.