Types of Nurses Who Care for Cancer Patients

Oncology nurses are very important members of your healthcare team. In fact, nurses are often the first, last, or possibly the only healthcare professional you see on your hematology appointments.

There are many different types of nurses, and it may be hard to know the role that each one of them plays in your care. Here is a breakdown of the different types of oncology nurses.

4 nurses gathered at the nurses' station
Agence Photographique BSIP / Getty Images 

Registered Nurses

Registered nurses (RNs) are the most common type of nurse, and likely the ones that you will see most frequently on your cancer visits. RNs combine extensive knowledge of the human body, illness, and disease with caring, emotional and spiritual support. They view each person in the context of their culture, beliefs, lifestyle, and family life, as well as their illness and treatment.

RNs provide physical care such as dressing changes, medication and chemotherapy administration, monitoring of bloodwork and vital signs, and also educate, support and care for patients and their families on an emotional level.

RNs can be found in a clinic or hospital, in an office, in a treatment room, or may come to your home to provide care.

To practice as an RN, nurses need to attend a recognized nursing school, college or university and pass a licensing exam. RNs may have a diploma, which takes about two years to obtain, or a bachelor’s degree which may take four years. The bachelor’s degree in nursing may be called BN, or BScN.

Advanced Practice Nurses

Advanced practice nurses (APNs) are registered nurses who have obtained their master’s or doctorate degree (yes, you can be a doctor of nursing!) and have additional responsibilities from RNs. APNs may work by themselves or alongside physicians at your cancer center.

  • Nurse practitioners (NPs) are a type of APN. They function in a similar way to physicians in that they may complete your physical assessments and histories, organize your treatment plan, help you to manage your symptoms, and even prescribe medications for you.
  • Clinical nurse specialists (CNS) are another type of APN that have advanced education in a specific field of nursing, such as cancer care. They typically act as a resource to patients and families as well as other nurses. They provide education, support and assist in coordinating your care.

Oncology Certified Nurses

RNs or APNs can take additional education and certification in the specialty of cancer care, or oncology. The process of oncology certification involves a qualifying exam, as well as continuing evidence of ongoing education and nursing practice. These nurses are experts in chemotherapy, radiotherapy, side effects management, pain control and care of the cancer patient throughout their illness and beyond.

Nurse Anesthetist

Nurse anesthetists are professional nurses that have received specialized education and training in administering anesthesia, or “putting you to sleep,” for a surgery. They work in collaboration with and under the guidance of a physician anesthetist. You may see this type of nurse if you require surgery at some point during your illness.

Nurse Navigators

Your cancer care center may also have a nurse navigator. This role varies from place to place, but for the most part, nurse navigators are there to help you and your family navigate the complicated healthcare system. They may provide you with education, help you to access resources, mobilize other healthcare providers in your care, or assist you in more practical matters such as getting transportation to your appointments or finding a wig.

Nurse navigators may also be there to assist you as you transition from inpatient to outpatient care (or vice versa), or from the role of a cancer patient to cancer survivor.

Licensed Practical Nurses

Licensed practical nurses (LPNs) are trained to provide some types of nursing care. Depending on where they receive their education, and usually takes about one year but can take longer to complete to become an LPN. The functions that LPNs perform are different in each place, but they usually provide routine nursing care such as monitoring of vital signs, hygiene, and grooming, as well as the administration of some medications.

Nurses Are Dedicated to Care of the Whole Person

Nurses are in just about every environment where health care is provided. Usually, nurses are the most visible and accessible members of your care team and coordinate, provide and administer your cancer treatment. While there are different types of nurses, the one thing that is consistent among all of them is that they are dedicated to providing you with the best care as a whole person, not as just a patient with cancer.

6 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Bureau of Labor Statistics. How to become a registered nurse. Occupational Outlook Handbook.

  2. American Nurses Association. Advanced practice registered nurse (APRN).

  3. Oncology Nursing Certification Corporation. Oncology Certified Nurse (OCN®).

  4. Nurse.org. Nurse anesthetist. Career Guide Series.

  5. Devine A. The nurse navigator: A patient’s compass on the healthcare journey. Nurse.org.

  6. Nurse.org. Licensed practical nurse. Career Guide Series.

By Karen Raymaakers
Karen Raymaakers RN, CON(C) is a certified oncology nurse that has worked with leukemia and lymphoma patients for over a decade.