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Q&A with Oncology Nurse, Carl Brown, PhD, RN, AOCN


BestNursingDegree.com interviews oncology nurse, Carl Brown, PhD, RN, AOCN. Carl has been working in oncology nursing for more than 20 years and was the former president of the Oncology Nursing Certification Corporation. He is currently the President of the Oncology Nursing Society and an Assistant Professor at the University of Delaware School of Nursing.

Below he talks about his experiences in oncology nursing and what it takes to be successful in the field.



Q: What is your current position?

I'm a nurse researcher in the area of symptoms, conducting research, and also teaching students in bachelor's and master's programs with a focus in oncology.

Q: What is oncology nursing?

Oncology nursing takes into consideration all patients who have some form of cancer. About 1.5 million patients are diagnosed with cancer each year, anything from breast and lung cancer to leukemia and lymphomas. An oncology nurse would care for anybody that has or has had cancer. About 11.4 million Americans are cancer survivors, and we don't want to leave them out when we talk about oncology nursing.

Q: How did you get started in this field and what kind of preparation does someone pursuing this career need?

When I was in elementary school, I had an aunt, my father's sister, who suffered from a very rare form of brain and lung cancer and subsequently died. I remember how difficult it was for all of our family, but particularly for her two children, my two cousins, who were my age. From that point forward, I have always been interested in working with patients with cancer. In my 20 years as a nurse, I've only worked with patients with cancer.

Q: What are some of the settings or specialties an oncology nurse might work in?

Cancer affects basically any human being, [from infancy to old age]. In oncology nursing, you might have a nurse who would specialize, let's say, in pediatric [oncology]. I always tell my students that cancer, in reality, is a disease of older people. You certainly see young people who have cancer, but when you look at the numbers, it's really a disease of older people. So there's always a focus in geriatric [oncology nursing].

The opportunities within oncology nursing are just incredible. We're certainly seeing more nurses who are starting their own businesses. [You can also pursue] health policy if you are interested in going to the federal government to make the case for patients and families with cancer.

Q: What's an average day like for an oncology nurse?

A nurse who's working in an adult oncology unit could be administering chemotherapy or caring for somebody that has a particular symptom like nausea or vomiting. Sometimes patients need blood, so a nurse may be administering blood. Unfortunately, physicians are very busy; they come in and they see the patient very shortly, maybe once or twice a day. It is the oncology nurse in the inpatient setting that is with the patient 24 hours a day, always there for the patient.

Q: What specialized skills are required of oncology nurses?

A nurse has to have great assessment skills. I learned very quickly to listen to patients, and what they're saying. Those [skills] grow the longer that you're a nurse.

Q: In general, are there any specific traits that work well in this career?

You have to be able to know when to be quiet. For a lot of people there's always this: "I don't know what to say to the person." We have learned in nursing research that just being with the patient is really all that they are asking of you. Good clinical skills and good communication skills [are necessary]. A patient who walks in the door may have a sixth grade education, and the next one may have some sort of doctorate. You've got to assess who's standing before you and be able to communicate in a way that [the patient] will understand.

Nursing is a hard job, so you have to be a team player. And, you have to have thick skin. Sometimes patients or other nurses may say something to you, but you can't really let it hurt your feelings. You have to really enjoy doing what you're doing.

Q: What would you tell students interested in the field?

At the Oncology Nursing Society, we invite high school students into our local chapter meetings. For a high school student, if they have opportunities in the summer to do some kind of volunteer work, [they should]. Once in nursing school, every nursing student has many, many hours of clinical time. If you think you have an interest in oncology, then ask that you be put on an oncology floor or in an oncology clinic or maybe travel with a hospice nurse - that would really be the best.

Q: What kind of changes have there been in oncology nursing in the last few years?

There's been tremendous change. You can't go away from oncology nursing, come back five years later and think that the whole field is the same because it isn't. The good news is that every day we're finding great treatments - chemotherapy drugs that work better in conjunction with each other. It is an ever-changing field.

Q: What do you see for the future of oncology nursing?

Ideally, I would like for us to find a cure for cancer, and I would like for all of us to be put out of a job. That would be very pleasant. Until that happens, I think the future of oncology nursing is continuing to travel along with those researchers and physicians who are finding the best new care and approaches for chemotherapy. I think we're going to see the survivorship numbers increase. People are living longer and longer. I think we're going to see more and more cancer because people are going to live longer. I can see in the future, nurse practitioners running survivorship clinics independently. There aren't enough oncology physicians to take care of all the patients. I think that we're going to be busy for years to come.

Q: Any other particular recommendations for aspiring oncology nurses?

The only thing that I would add is that the Oncology Nursing Society has an incredible website if you're a nurse or if you're a patient that's looking for information about cancer. It's www.ons.org. You can get connected with someone there to find the information you want, either about cancer or about oncology nursing.