National Nurses Month: Celebrating Oncology Nurses

Anyone who has experienced a hospital stay or managed a chronic condition knows the impact nurses have on patients and their families. Not only do nurses deliver exceptional healthcare, but they also offer advocacy, support — and even friendship.  

During National Nurses Month each May, the American Nurses Association celebrates nurses who lead, excel and innovate in their careers. In honor of Nurses Month, we spoke with three of our own nurse–leaders who have dedicated their careers to oncology nursing.

The Path to Oncology Nursing

There are many paths to oncology nursing. But one thing is clear: It takes a special nurse to have a passion for oncology. And when you have that passion, you’ll know right away.

Jayanthi Selvathambi, BSN, RN, OCN, adult infusion nurse at the Inova Schar Cancer Institute, started her nursing career in India, where she worked in labor and delivery, medical-surgical and the emergency room. When she moved to the United States in 2006, she interviewed to work in the cancer inpatient unit. “I told the nurse manager who interviewed me, ‘I have no experience in oncology,’” Selvathambi said. “She told me she could teach me, and if I didn’t end up liking it, I could leave.” Selvathambi never left and has now been in oncology nursing for the last 17 years.

Nancy Bowles, BSN, RN, MHA, OCN, CRNI, NEA-BC, CPC, CHONC, vice president of nursing, Inova Schar Cancer Institute, and Jillian Powers, BSN, RN, OCN, oncology nurse navigator, malignant hematology and nurse navigation team lead, Inova Schar Cancer Institute, have similar stories. They were both placed in oncology nursing early on and have now spent their careers in the specialty. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do. My first boss placed me in pediatric oncology. Twenty years later, I went to adult oncology, and I’ve been in this area ever since,” said Bowles, who’s spent the last 44 years in oncology nursing.

Some nurses are daunted at the idea of oncology. But Powers says they shouldn’t be. “I thought it would be depressing and difficult,” Powers said. “But I saw something very special with oncology patients. Even as they were going through such difficult things, they were always grateful. I fell in love with the specialty 23 years ago, and it’s the only area I’ve wanted to work in since.”

Oncology Nurses at Inova Schar Cancer Institute

Lasting Patient-Nurse Relationships

Oncology is a unique specialty in that it offers time for nurses to build relationships with their patients. “We’re often there from initial diagnosis, through years of various treatments and sometimes through the end of their lives,” Powers said.

Ask any oncology nurse, and they’ll have a myriad of stories about patients they’ve become close with over the years. From invitations to patients’ homes to giving out their personal cell phone numbers, the depth of the patient-nurse relationships can’t be overstated. “When I was a young nurse in pediatric oncology, I got very close with a family who told me they wanted me to marry their son,” Bowles shared with a laugh. “It was moving how much they loved me and wanted me to be part of their family.”

Selvathambi tells a story about a patient who experienced severe complications with a take-home chemotherapy pump. “I saw this patient in the morning for her treatment and immediately knew something was wrong — the pump had leaked into her tissue,” Selvathambi explained. The patient was sent to the emergency room immediately and needed treatment that forced her to pause chemotherapy for six months.

“When she came back for chemotherapy, I was so afraid to face her,” Selvathambi said. “I kept thinking, ‘Did I do something wrong? Will she think this was my fault?’ I even requested that I not be assigned to her.”

But when the patient returned to begin chemotherapy infusions again, she sought out Selvathambi first thing and threw her arms around her in a big hug. “She said, ‘If you weren’t there to catch this complication, it could’ve gotten even more extensive. I wouldn’t even be here,’” Selvathambi shared. “Despite everything, she was so grateful. She’s finished with her treatment now, but she still comes by to show me pictures of her grandchildren and to catch up.”

Find Your Nursing Calling

Working at the bedside in oncology is a special area of nursing. But there are many other opportunities to make a difference as a nurse — in hospitals, at outpatient clinics and primary care offices, or as telehealth specialists.

If you’re considering a career in nursing, think about what niche resonates with you. Finding the area of nursing where you’re fulfilled is crucial. It’s the reason these three women have dedicated their careers to one nursing calling: They found the specialty they were passionate about.  

Bowles shared that she still delights in her current job as a nurse administrator. “The way I help people just looks a little different now,” Bowles explained. “I still help patients with getting the resources they need or with navigating our health system. And I’m able to mentor and educate young nurses.”

All three women had the same advice for new nurses: Don’t be afraid to explore multiple fields within nursing. “There are so many opportunities in nursing that don’t involve working in a hospital or at the bedside,” Powers noted. “There’s a spot for everyone.”

Don’t be discouraged if it takes some trial and error to figure out the area of nursing that you’re passionate about. “The first specialty you select may not be where you end up,” Bowles said. “Nurses are needed now more than ever — don’t give up looking for that place that fits you best and where you can be of service.”

Explore a Nursing Career

If you are interested in a nursing career with oncology, please visit Inova Careers to learn more about joining the Inova team.

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