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What does a chemotherapy nurse do?

Being a chemotherapy nurse is a high profile, high stakes role that calls for both excellent technical skills and superb communication and empathy.

This role is particularly demanding for a number of reasons – and also extremely rewarding. For a start, cytotoxic chemotherapy chemicals are dangerous – to patients, to those administering them and to the environment. Handling them requires focused attention, steady hands and calm nerves.

Then there’s the breadth of detailed knowledge a chemotherapy nurse needs to call on throughout their work, dealing with a huge array of different drugs being used for different diseases, in a field where innovation is continuous.

But it’s the fact that patients are at an extremely stressful point in their lives that really makes the role an intense one. As a chemotherapy nurse your patients are often facing the toughest times they’ll ever know, and they’re on an emotional rollercoaster. Most will be frightened, even panicking, about what their treatment will be like, and they’re in need of support like no other patient group.

A chemotherapy nurse is in the front line of helping people with cancer cope – getting through that first day of treatment, finding ways to cope with debilitating side-effects, and dealing with the outcomes. Finding the right words with patients who are facing death or feeling desperately sick isn’t always easy, but the difference you can make is enormous.

What the role involves

The chemotherapy nurse has four key roles: educating patients, administering chemotherapy drugs, managing side effects and supporting patients emotionally. Nurses work in a multi-disciplinary team in both in-patient and outpatient settings including hospital wards and community healthcare centres.

A nurse needs detailed, in-depth knowledge of the different drugs used across treatments for different cancers, their potential side-effects, and the potential ways to help a patient deal with those side effects. It’s a lot to know, and you must constantly assess the patient throughout treatment, looking not only for side-effects but also other indications of how treatment is progressing.

Drug administration itself calls for outstanding intravenous skills. A good chemotherapy nurse will be an expert at troubleshooting common access problems and finding a way in, no matter how difficult it is.

As for supporting patients emotionally, this requires the kinds of skills a counsellor or therapist has, but it’s all part of the job for a chemotherapy nurse.   

What’s tough about it

The reality is that you will see patients suffer – a lot. Chemotherapy is tough, facing cancer is tough, and chemotherapy nurses are the ones giving patients the drugs and talking them through their fears, their pain, their suffering. It can be upsetting.

What’s more, treatments often fail and your patients die. It’s hard to separate your own personal feelings from your role as a professional.

What’s good about it

Unlike most nursing roles, a chemotherapy nurse has long-term, ongoing contact with patients. You get to know them as people and build strong, meaningful relationships. This creates a very rewarding bond.

You’re also making a really important difference to people’s lives at a highly emotionally charged time. Every interaction you have matters. When you help someone, you’re really helping them. 

And oddly enough, many chemotherapy nurses find that they learn from their patients: they’re constantly reminded about what matters in life and what doesn’t.

How to become a chemotherapy nurse

Requirements vary, but chemotherapy nurses need to be educated to degree level in a related subject, have several years’ clinical experience, of which two must have been in cancer, palliative care or a related area, and either have specialist learning in the area or show a willingness to gain it.

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