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How to Become an Oncology Nurse Practitioner (ONP)

Duties, Responsibilities, Schooling, Requirements, Certifications, Job Outlook, and Salary

Medical professional writing in a notebook

At some point in their lives, most people will have a friend or family member who is diagnosed with some kind of cancer. Unfortunately, cancer remains one of the leading causes of death worldwide and affects millions of people every year. The good news is that cancer treatments and overall patient outcomes continue to improve, thanks largely to the efforts of healthcare professionals like oncology nurse practitioners.

If you’re longing to join the ranks of dedicated providers who care for cancer patients with compassion and advanced clinical expertise, becoming an oncology nurse practitioner could be the best nursing specialty for you! Oncology nurse practitioners are not only some of the most important frontline workers in the ongoing fight against cancer, they also earn some of the top salaries among all nursing careers. In fact, we recently featured oncology nurse practitioners on our list of the highest-paid nursing jobs in 2021.

This career guide will teach you everything you need to know about becoming an oncology nurse practitioner, including the educational requirements, certifications, day-to-day duties, and how long it generally takes to launch your new career.

Not sure if becoming an oncology nurse practitioner is the right nursing specialty for you? Click here to see our full list of the 18 highest-paying nursing jobs.

Oncology Nurse Practitioner Definition

What Is an Oncology Nurse Practitioner?

Oncology nurse practitioners are advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs) who specialize in assessing, treating, and educating cancer patients. Like other NPs, they have advanced medical training and are authorized to perform certain tasks traditionally reserved for physicians, like ordering diagnostic tests or prescribing medication.

Oncology Nurse Practitioner: Job Description

What Does an Oncology Nurse Practitioner Do?

Oncology nurse practitioners spend lots of time working directly with patients, for everything from cancer screenings to administering treatments as part of a larger medical team. They regularly provide both physical and psychological support to cancer patients who are likely to be going through one of the most challenging times of their lives. Oncology nurse practitioners also educate patients and their families on how to continue their treatment plan at home, and are frequently able to provide a little more face time and personal care than often-overworked cancer physicians. Oncology NPs may also be involved in conducting research aimed at improving cancer treatments or specialized medical equipment.

Oncology Nurse Practitioner Duties

Some of the day-to-day responsibilities of oncology nurse practitioners include:

  • Conducting screenings for all types of cancers
  • Educating patients about cancer prevention and early detection
  • Ordering and performing biopsies and interpreting their results
  • Prescribing medication and administering cancer treatments
  • Educating patients and their caregivers on how to continue care at home
  • Conducting research focused on improving cancer treatments

Oncology Nurse Practitioner Skills

The best oncology nurse practitioners have found a balance of being analytically minded while also having excellent interpersonal skills. You’ll need your patients to trust you enough to be fully forthcoming about their symptoms, and you’ll also need the problem-solving skills to make accurate diagnoses for what could be potentially life-threatening conditions. Like any other healthcare professional who works with cancer patients, becoming an oncology nurse practitioner requires a certain amount of emotional resilience. You’ll occasionally have to break very somber news to patients and their families, and may be a part of some very emotional moments. However, you’ll also get a chance to be a part of many people’s success stories, which is what makes a career as an oncology nurse practitioner one of the most sought-after specialties in all of nursing.

Row of empty hospital beds

Where Do Oncology Nurse Practitioners Work?

The majority of oncology nurse practitioners work within hospital oncology wards, or at specialty hospitals and clinics dedicated exclusively to cancer prevention and care. However, you’ll also find oncology nurse practitioners working in home health care services, public-health government jobs, or even working for pharmaceutical or medical-device companies. Compared to some other nursing specialties, a decent number of oncology nurse practitioners tend to work more standard business hours, as cancer screenings and treatments can be scheduled somewhat more predictably than many other medical procedures. However, oncology nurse practitioner jobs in hospitals or home care services may require working shifts (or being on-call) during nights, weekends, or holidays.

Oncology Nurse Practitioner Schooling & Certification

How Long Does It Take to Become an Oncology Nurse Practitioner?

What Degree Do You Need to Be an Oncology Nurse Practitioner?

As oncology nurse practitioners are some of the most highly trained (and highly paid) advanced-practice nurses in the medical industry, they’re required to complete multiple nursing degrees and build significant clinical experience.

Like any other nursing specialty, you’ll need to start by earning your Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree from an accredited college or university. Traditionally, that requires spending a full four years in school, but with an accelerated degree program, you could earn your BSN in as little as 32 months! You’ll also need to earn a master’s degree in nursing (MSN) with a concentration in oncology before you’ll be eligible to become a certified oncology nurse practitioner.

Any long-term goal seems much more attainable when you break it down into individual steps, and becoming an oncology nurse practitioner is no different.

Here’s a step-by-step guide to the education, experience, and certifications you’ll need to become an oncology nurse practitioner:

1. Enroll in a Bachelor’s of Science in Nursing (BSN) Program

The first step in your oncology nurse practitioner education is enrolling in a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) program from an accredited college or university. Finishing nursing school will require dedication and a willingness to work hard, but almost anyone can earn their way into one of the top nursing specialties if you’re willing to put in the necessary effort. For example, to enroll in the BSN program at Brookline College, all you’ll need is a high school diploma or GED with a GPA of 2.5 or higher, plus a passing score on the ATI-TEAS admission exam.

Woman taking notes

2. Earn Your BSN Degree

Like any other top nursing specialty, your career as an oncology nurse practitioner starts with earning your Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree. Your BSN coursework will include general-education requirements like math, literature, statistics, psychology, and communications—courses you’ll find in any bachelor’s degree program. While these classes may not seem directly related to nursing or medicine, they’ll help you become a better critical-thinker and problem-solver, which are especially important skills for decoding symptoms of sometimes-rare cancers that may otherwise go undiagnosed.

Of course, the main focus of your BSN program will involve learning the various aspects of nursing. Many of your classes will cover how to assess and care for all types of patients, including the cancer patients you’ll be working with as an oncology nurse practitioner. Others will teach you about pharmacology and all the different medicines and units of measure used in the medical field. You’ll also cover health care law and ethics and take classes that focus on improving your evidence-based decision-making. These classes will build the knowledge and instincts you’ll need to make accurate diagnoses, and teach you how to handle certain situations that may have moral or legal implications.

Alongside your nursing-specific coursework, you’ll also spend time studying related medical sciences like anatomy, microbiology, nutrition, and human development. A well-rounded knowledge of overall wellness will help you better care for your patients, whether they’re in for a routine screening or trying to minimize side effects during an intensive treatment regimen.

The final step of your BSN education requires completing a clinical capstone program, which will give you hands-on experience in a real hospital environment. While your nursing program will involve plenty of hands-on training—including exercises that will teach you about treating cancer patients— there’s no substitute for real-world experience where you can experience a patient’s emotions and hear the concern in their voice. Long before you can become an oncology nurse practitioner, you’ll need to master the fundamentals of hands-on nursing, and that can only come with time spent working with patients.

Wherever you choose to pursue your nursing degree, make sure it’s with a college that’s up-to-date on the latest training tools, and one with a proven track record of supporting their students even after graduation. Nursing schools that offer students extra services like job-placement programs can sometimes help you line up your first job as an RN before you’ve even gotten your diploma framed and hung up on the wall!

3. Pass the NCLEX-RN Exam

Before you can become an oncology nurse practitioner, you’ll need to get licensed as a registered nurse by passing the NCLEX-RN exam. The NCLEX is a computer-adaptive test, meaning the number of questions and the amount of time it takes will depend on how many questions you answer correctly. The highest number of questions is typically around 265 over a maximum of six hours—however, the test can also be over in as few as 75 questions if you’re getting all the right answers! Two optional breaks are scheduled at the 2-hour mark and the 3.5-hour mark. While some people are born naturally confident test-takers, the mortals among us may benefit from taking a practice exam, which are readily available online. Many people find it helpful to get an advanced look at the test format, as well as a better idea of any subjects that may require a brief refresher.

Smiling nurse in an orange mask

4. Gain Experience as a Licensed Registered Nurse

Once you’ve passed the NCLEX, you’ll be eligible to receive a nursing license from the state in which you intend to practice. The NCLEX is nationally recognized, which gives you the flexibility to start building your oncology nursing experience anywhere you choose. Seeking out relevant experience working with oncology physicians and cancer patients will make you a more attractive candidate, both for your future oncology MSN program and your future employers.

Nursing license renewal requirements vary by state, but you’ll generally need to renew your license every two to three years. As long as you’ve been actively working as an RN or participating in continuing education programs (an MSN degree program certainly qualifies), keeping your nursing license current shouldn’t require jumping through too many hoops.

5. Earn a Postsecondary Nursing Degree

Like any other advanced-practice nurse, oncology nurse practitioners must earn a postgraduate nursing degree—almost always a master’s of science in nursing (MSN). Many educational institutions offer MSN programs focused specifically on advanced-practice oncology nursing, which will build upon your BSN education as well as your real-world experience as an RN.

You’ll find MSN programs available with concentrations in oncology at nursing schools across the country, including online programs that allow working full-time as a registered nurse while earning your master’s degree. Typically, earning your MSN degree takes two more years in school, though you can finish some accelerated programs as quickly as 18 months.

6. Become an Advanced Oncology Certified Nurse Practitioner

After completing an MSN program with a concentration in oncology and logging enough hours of supervised clinical practice, you’ll be eligible to get certified as an Advanced Oncology Certified Nurse Practitioner (AOCNP) through the Oncology Nursing Certification Corporation. The AOCNP exam consists of 165 multiple-choice questions, to be completed within a three-hour time window. After passing the exam, your certification is valid for four years, and demonstrates to employers you’ve achieved an advanced level of mastery in oncological nursing.

Oncology Nurse Practitioner Salary

How Much Do Oncology Nurse Practitioners Make?

According to Salary.com, the average annual salary* for oncology nurse practitioners across the United States is over $115,500, which works out to well over $58 per hour. Oncology nurse practitioners in the 90th percentile of earners routinely earn $123,000 or more every year.

Oncology Nurse Practitioner Job Outlook

What is the Job Outlook for Oncology Nurse Practitioners?

Everyone hopes for a world without cancer, but until then, we’re lucky to have people like oncology nurse practitioners! With millions of cancer cases every year in the U.S. alone, there remains an ongoing need for highly trained healthcare professionals who can educate, diagnose, and treat cancer patients. While the BLS doesn’t provide detailed job data specifically for oncology nurse practitioners, the overall number of nurse practitioners is expected to increase a staggering 45% by the year 2030. Considering the average growth rate for all other jobs is around 4%, that means employment of oncology nurse practitioners is projected to grow over 10 times faster than the national average.

Female graduate holding a stethoscope

Ready to Start Your Career as an Oncology Nurse Practitioner?

Whether your life experience has given you a personal connection to cancer patients, or you simply love the idea of working to eradicate a disease that has caused so much heartbreak, becoming an oncology nurse practitioner could be your ticket to a long and fulfilling nursing career. Oncology nurse practitioners regularly get to play a major role in people’s cancer recovery stories, and are rewarded for their hard work with some of the highest salaries among all nursing specialties.

Ready to start taking steps toward a rewarding career as an oncology nurse practitioner? Click here to learn more about the BSN program at Brookline College, and take the first steps toward your new career in nursing today!