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What it’s like working as an oncology nurse

Joining a cancer ward can be daunting, but it allows you to work closely with patients

Joining a cancer ward can be daunting, but it allows you to work closely with patients

Emma Cuthbert and Chelsea Jackson, oncology nurses at Northampton General Hospital
Emma Cuthbert and Chelsea Jackson, oncology nurses at Northampton General Hospital

Joining a cancer ward can be a nerve-wracking prospect, with many nurses worried about the toll on their own emotional well-being.

‘There’s a stigma around cancer nursing because it’s such an emotional and specialised area,’ says staff nurse Chelsea Jackson. ‘But I’d say don’t be scared. There are opportunities for learning, especially if you want to progress in your career.’ 

After graduating from the University of Northampton in 2016, Ms Jackson joined Northampton General Hospital’s 24-bed Talbot Butler oncology and haematology ward, with the longer-term aim of working in emergency care.

‘I’d heard this was a good place to work, with lots of opportunities and a great team. It was hard to get a job here because no one wants to leave,’ she says.

Training in a range of prodecures

Ms Jackson learned skills including cannulation, administering blood products and intravenous medication. ‘I received training quickly, because we do so many procedures here,’ she says.

She progressed to a band 6 post one year after joining. ‘I thought I would take those skills and work in the emergency department (ED), but I never left.’

Now studying for a master’s in advanced nursing practice, Ms Jackson feels the job offers the best of both worlds. ‘I do acute care and I’m constantly learning new skills, and there are other benefits too,’ she says.

Building relationships with patients and their families

‘Working here opens a lot of doors. You can become a cancer nurse specialist or specialise in palliative care. The ward provides the foundation.’

The ability to build relationships with patients and their loved ones is important. ‘You don’t have these kinds of relationships with patients everywhere,’ says Ms Jackson. ‘We have relatives who come back to see us even after their loved ones have passed away; there is a bond.

‘I’m looking after people who are unwell, but there is continuity. In the ED there is a quick turnover, with patients treated and sent home or admitted to another ward.’

Quick career progression if you take the opportunities

Ward sister Emma Cuthbert joined Talbot Butler as a healthcare assistant in 2006. Two years later she was asked if she would like to apply for the Open University’s new preregistration nursing degree. ‘It was a good foundation to become a nurse,’ she says. ‘The hospital funded me and I worked part-time.’

Qualifying four and a half years later, she returned to the ward as a staff nurse, before becoming a junior sister two years later. After successfully covering the sister’s role, she was appointed to the post in 2019.

‘I’ve progressed to this role early in my career,’ she says. ‘I’ve taken the opportunities that have come along. It’s been challenging, but I’ve always had a good team who have supported me. I love my role.’

Oncology nursing is emotional and specialised
Picture: SPL

Recruiting for cancer nursing roles

Nationally, charities such as Macmillan Cancer Support have highlighted the lack of cancer nurses and the effect this is having on patient care, but Ms Cuthbert says recruitment is going well on Talbot Butler. 

The ward has 22 registered nurses, with another nine newly qualified staff starting over the next four months, three of whom had placements on the ward as nursing students.

Continuity of care on a cancer ward

Ms Cuthbert also appreciates the continuity of care involved in her role. ‘We see patients from diagnosis and are with them throughout, you get to know them and their families and build up a rapport with them,’ she says.

‘One of our patients was on the ward for almost a year and she became part of our Talbot Butler family. It’s not uncommon for us to have patients for 3-6 months. We probably spend more time with them than we spend with our own families.’

But that closeness can mean staff find it difficult when patients deteriorate. 'It's hard to see patients with young children because you know they will have to live without a parent,' says Ms Cuthbert. ‘With younger patients, staff can be even more affected, because they haven’t lived their life yet. It can play on your mind, but we have clinical support and we talk as a team.’

Helping patients, whatever the outcome

Job satisfaction comes from helping patients with whatever happens. ‘We support them through the most difficult part of their life,’ she says. ‘You can see patients go into remission, get better and go home.

‘Or, you can care for someone until the end of their life, knowing you’ve kept them comfortable, pain-free and taken care of their family. You’re delivering a high standard of care to patients who are at their most vulnerable.’


Northampton General Hospital is part of the Best of Both Worlds campaign, which showcases nursing job opportunities throughout Northamptonshire


Lynne Pearce is a health journalist

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