Q&A: What it's like to be an oncology nurse

May 17, 2017 | by Edward-Elmhurst Health

It takes someone truly special to work in the field of oncology. Oncology nurses are with us during some of the most intimate times in our lives. From the moment your cancer journey begins, your oncology nurse helps monitor your condition, prescribe medication, administer chemotherapy and provide support and comfort to you and your family.

Like all nurses, oncology nurses have heart, compassion, spirit and dedication. In honor of Oncology Nursing Month, we wanted to highlight two of our nurses to thank them for all they do.

Kelly Opaleski and Melissa Granger have been nurses at Edward-Elmhurst Health for over 10 years. Both will tell you that no two days are ever the same. Peek into their roles and learn about what it’s like to care for patients with cancer:

Why did you decide to become a nurse?

K: I’ve been an oncology nurse since I graduated college. My dad was a physician and my mom was an oncology APN and PhD. I thought I would never go into the field of oncology, but my first clinical in nursing school was on an oncology floor and, after the first day I said, ‘this is what I want to do.’ The patients and families are amazing.

M: I realized I wanted to be a nurse in seventh grade, when my four-year-old cousin was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Watching the nurses such take such good care of him made me realize that oncology was what I wanted to do.

What is a typical day like for you?

K: I am an infusion nurse, so I assist patients throughout their treatments, including giving them chemotherapy, blood products, antibiotics and multiple other infusions for various conditions. I am also an ongoing educator to patients and families regarding drugs and side effect management, home care, and daily life management. I work closely with a patient’s cancer team to ensure the most efficient and safest care. I am constantly on alert and prepared for anything at any time on a daily basis.

M: I work in the Infusion Center at the Cancer Center. During a typical day, I take care of patients by giving them a variety of medications besides chemotherapy, including injections, IV antibiotics, hydration and more. Every day is different and challenging in its own way. I give patients a lot of education on various medications they are receiving, help with managing side effects, and emotional support.

What do you enjoy most about being an oncology nurse? What are the challenges?

K: I love oncology nursing. It's different than other units or type of nursing. The patients and their families are awesome. We get to know their families, kids, grandkids, and their family lives and events – and they also learn ours! They truly become part of your family. I really feel like I make a difference every day. It can get hard when patients pass away because losing a part of your family is hard. I’m always learning and staying informed about new innovative drugs and treatments. It's amazing to see the progress in oncology since I started in 1993!

M: Ever since I decided I wanted to be a nurse in seventh grade, I knew I wanted to do oncology. I love being there for patients in the most difficult moments of their life. The biggest challenge about oncology is handling it emotionally. My goal is to be supportive of patients throughout their journey.

What has being an oncology nurse taught you?

K: Oncology nursing has taught me to not sweat the small stuff. It has also taught me to be a little more patient as I'm a very “type A” person. I have learned to always look three steps ahead of what can happen during treatment day, and in life in general. I have also learned to be prepared for anything, always smile and be happy. A patient's day starts with you and a caring, happy, smiling nurse can really make a difference.

M: Being an oncology nurse has taught me to live every day to the fullest because you never know what tomorrow holds.

What advice do you have for patients during their cancer journey?

K: Stay positive -- attitude is key. I tell my patients to be informed and don't be afraid to ask your healthcare team questions. It is also good to have a sense of humor, eat healthy, stay hydrated and exercise. In addition, take advantage of programs by our social workers and events in the community. Support helps and so many people out there know what you’re going through. Don't try to do it all yourself.

M: Stay strong, stay positive, and give yourself grace during this time in your life.

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