Saluting our oncology nurses

The week of May 6-12 is National Nurses Week. At the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center and the N.C. Cancer Hospital, we've got some of the best. Read this Q&A with Ashley Farmer, BSN, RN, OCN, patient services manager in the Adult Oncology Infusion Center at UNC Hospitals.

Saluting our oncology nurses click to enlarge Ashley Farmer, BSN, RN, OCN, Patient Services Manager in the Adult Oncology Infusion Center at UNC Hospitals

To recognize our outstanding oncology nurses and to learn more about the vital role they play as part of the caregiving team at the NC Cancer Hospital, we spoke with Ashley Farmer, a member of our nursing leadership at UNC. 

How has caring for oncology patients changed over the last 10-20 years?

Caring for oncology patients is more exciting with each passing year.  We are able to offer our patients new treatments and medications, and research efforts are more focused on targeting cancer cells.  Many chemo treatments are now given in the outpatient setting.  It’s been a wonderful transition for patients to be able to go home at night instead of staying in the hospital for long periods of time. 

Oncology nursing has become a very specialized field of practice.  How do clinicians advance in the profession?

Our professional organization, Oncology Nursing Society, provides wonderful opportunities for professional growth.  There is an annual conference that many nurses from our cancer hospital attend.  There is also a separate leadership conference that prepares oncology nurses for various leadership roles.  At UNC, we utilize the Nursing Professional Advancement System to promote nurses and offer time for teaching classes, quality improvement projects, and research to improve our practice.  Several of our Advanced Nurse Practitioners in the cancer hospital are former oncology nurses from UNC. 

The strength of a cancer patient and their family is inspiring. I’ve learned life lessons from my patients that I’m not sure I would have learned from anyone else.  

What is unique/different about being an oncology nurse here at the NC Cancer Hospital?

UNC Lineberger is able to offer innovative treatments to patients that are not given in many other parts of the country or even the world. Oncology nurses at UNC have the opportunity to be actively involved in cutting-edge research, which can be a lot more interesting than just reading about it in a journal. Our cancer hospital team works well together to provide holistic patient care. Our providers and pharmacists are excited and eager to teach nursing staff when we are doing something new and different for a patient. This makes it easier for our nurses to ask questions and to learn about the science behind what we are doing every day. Additionally, all team members are open to suggestions for change if it means that the result will positively impact the patient. 

What are the biggest challenges oncology nurses face? The biggest rewards?

The biggest challenge I face as an oncology nurse is the balance between quality and quantity of life with regards to my patients.  The side effects from the medications we give can cause a lot of suffering, and that’s difficult not to take personally. However, the biggest reward for me has been helping patients during that time of suffering. Sitting with patients, listening to them talk about their experiences and encouraging them has been the greatest opportunity of my life.  

If you could do it all over again, would you be an oncology nurse?

Absolutely!  There is no doubt in my mind that I chose the right field of nursing for me.  The strength of a cancer patient and their family is inspiring.  I’ve learned life lessons from my patients that I’m not sure I would have learned from anyone else.  

What advice would you give a new nurse-graduate who is interested in caring for cancer patients?

I have interviewed a lot of new nurse graduates, and I ask them to carefully consider their decision.  I always tell them that oncology nursing isn’t for everyone….because that’s the truth.  But if someone really wants to care for cancer patients, I tell them it will be one of the most rewarding experiences of their life.  I also encourage them to seek out a mentor or group of oncology nurse colleagues who can cry with them in the difficult times and celebrate in the good.  We need each other in this journey. 

What do you love most about your job?

I love working in a medical center that values quality improvement and collaboration.  I have worked in situations where change was nearly forbidden, but that’s not my experience now. I recently pitched an idea to my boss for decreasing patient wait times and her response was, “Let’s do it!” How awesome is that?