Nurses, more than any other health care professionals, come alongside patients and families to provide care, support, and education throughout the cancer experience, from the time of diagnosis onward through treatment to end of life or survivorship care.

In my subspecialty of childhood cancer, nurses also have had key roles in the clinical trials that have produced remarkable improvements in survival since chemotherapy was first given to children with cancer in the 1940’s. More recently, the scope of pediatric oncology nursing has expanded to include designing studies and driving team science.

A multi-faceted specialty

Oncology nurses bring important skill sets to cancer care, none more important than a commitment to lifelong learning. In the paradigm shift to precision medicine, treatment is being individualized to specific molecular and genetic alterations in a patient’s cancer through the use of targeted drugs. To educate patients and families about this approach, nurses are continuously educating themselves about new molecular and genomic discoveries, new drugs and new protocols.

In the world of team science and interprofessional practice, nurses are using relationship and organizational skills to coordinate care across disciplines, departments and institutions, and serving as expert navigators for patients and families. A growing cadre of nurse scientists is using advanced research skills in areas such as symptom management research to discover new ways to improve life during and after a cancer experience. Others are analyzing data and trends to inform evidence-based practice, safety and care quality.

“... symptom science, caregiving research and self-management will be needed to build precision nursing in pediatric oncology.”

The next steps in nursing

There are some challenges on the horizon. In a volatile health care environment, nurses will be asked to do more with less. Innovative approaches will be needed to support oncology nurses in this emotionally taxing work to minimize compassion fatigue and retain highly skilled nurses in the work force. With the pace and extent of scientific discovery, effective, affordable and easily accessed continuing education will be essential.

Funding support for nursing research that emphasizes symptom science, caregiving research and self-management will be needed to build precision nursing in pediatric oncology. A great example of such an opportunity is the Childhood Cancer Survivorship, Treatment, Access, and Research (STAR) Act which, among other things, would expand opportunities for childhood cancer research in order to improve the understanding of these cancers and of the effects of treatment.

However, the most wonderful future challenge would be having to find other nursing work if childhood cancer could be cured or prevented altogether.