What Is It like to be an Oncology Nurse? Three Longtime Wilmot Nurses Give an Inside Scoop
Each year, thousands of people across the country are diagnosed with cancer. Tens of thousands of oncology nursing staff members work with these patients across the country – including about 600 of them right here in the Rochester region, at Wilmot Cancer Institute.
Nursing teams work as part of the larger oncology team to help patients and their families determine treatment goals, deliver medications that could save or vastly improve a life, and provide comfort, among other actions.
As cancer care has become more complex, so to has the nursing function in cancer care. Today, many oncology nurses receive extra certification in oncology to be able to perform their best for patients facing cancer and a potentially complex treatment course.
Despite the changes that have occurred, connection remains a key part of oncology nursing.
What is it really like to be an oncology nurse? Three of our nurses shared their take:
- Crystal Yero, R.N., works as the nurse manager at Wilmot’s Webster location; she’s been an oncology nurse for about 17 years. She started on an inpatient unit, where she worked for eight years, before transferring to Wilmot’s Pluta Cancer Center for eight years. She took the nurse manager role at Webster in 2022.
- Meley Gmedhin, R.N., works in the Wilmot Cancer Center Infusion Center. She started her career in 2004 in the Hematology/Oncology unit at Wilmot and has also worked in the Emergency Department. She leads Wilmot’s Compassion Fatigue Support Group for Nursing and has been an important mentor for nurses in the Infusion Center over the years.
- Anna Morrison, R.N., O.C.N., is a clinic nurse and nurse navigator for the lymphoma group at Wilmot. She started on the bone marrow transplant unit in 1997 and has also worked as a an outpatient transplant coordinator and a pediatric coordinator, before becoming a lymphoma clinic nurse and helping to start the CAR-T program.
A brief Q&A follows, with responses that have been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.
What about oncology nursing drew you in or why did you decide to lean toward oncology nursing?
CY: The initial thought with oncology, as with most of us, was a family member or loved one is affected. That is when I initially thought, maybe oncology might be what I would be interested in. The patient population is amazing. They're so grateful for everything that you do for them. Bringing them something during their treatment as simple as a drink and a snack, they’re like ‘Oh my gosh, thank you so much.’ It's a very rewarding experience.
MG: When I was doing my rotation as a nurse student, my last year rotation was hematology/oncology. I fell in love with the nurses. I give this story to everybody because they were great mentors and I just saw how they took care of their patients and the passion that they had. And I said, wow, as a new nurse, I want to be like that. I was very fortunate that when I graduated, I did apply and I got the position.
AM: When I was in my early 20s, I got sick and ended up being hospitalized. After I got through all of that, I thought, what did this mean in my life? I ended up starting to take some classes and thought, maybe I would like to be a nurse. I thought I would do hospice nursing. But through a series of coincidences, I ended up interviewing on the bone marrow transplant floor and when I started up there, I went through the front doors and it really felt like I was home. I couldn't have asked for better nurses and a better situation to learn.
What is your favorite part of being an oncology nurse?
CY: The connections that I get with people. As a bedside nurse, the connections that I get with the patients and their family members, and now as a nurse manager, the connections that I get with my staff. I feel like all along the way, what I love most about my job is connecting with people.
MG: It is a different kind of nursing. It's very rewarding, but at the same time, it can be hard. But I look at the oncology nurse as, you come alongside a journey of the particular patient. It could be a long journey, it could be a short journey. The way I look at is, in that time, I want to make a difference. I want to make it as easy as possible for them and that is very rewarding and that's where my passion is. Even if I can't change the outcome, their journey can be less painful and I think that's where we play a big role as oncology nurses.
AM: I think that there is no better population. This is a population that wants to get better. They're very invested in their care and in the 25 years I've been doing oncology, we have come so far with the things that we can offer now. It has been unbelievable to see where we were when I started and where we are now. And people are living longer. We have new treatments. It's a constant growth. I never feel like I know everything. Every day, I learn things and I have gained so much from the patients – I am in their debt — and from the other nurses that I've worked with. They've been so inspiring and it's always pushed me to a higher bar and to want to be doing better and learning more and I can't think of a better profession. I feel like it was a calling and I'm so happy that I went with it and that this is where I ended up, at Wilmot.
CY: From the time that you start a job, you make a connection with somebody and that connection can last while you’re at that job and then even beyond. Some of my mentors, who I still consider mentors, I’ve known for my entire career. So that's 17 years that I have worked with these different people and each of them has helped guide me to where I am today. I encourage that for my staff as well, to find that connection with somebody and then have that person help them through. Whether it's a tough situation or career guidance, trying to talk people into going back to school. All of that.
MG: I think, to be vulnerable. I know that a lot of times, especially outside nursing, the expectation might be, you have to know everything. You don't. We are mentored and also nurtured into the position. So, if you find an older nurse, link arms and it is how you grow and it's for the older nurses also to really be active. This is a profession well sought after and we want to pass the baton to the next generation. We want to take them under our wing. There is a lot to give. And so it's a give and take, for the newer nurses to be willing to learn and to be patient, to give themselves grace, because you’re not going to know everything when you first graduate and become a nurse.
AM: The most important thing is to be open to everything that you can be learning. The nurses that I have worked with here, I can never say how much they have changed me and helped me grow as a person. I think back and there's so many nurses and I would pluck things from each of them. I love the way this nurse makes sure that the patient is washed up and cleaned and that the room is spotless. Or I love the way this nurse talks with the patients or I love that this nurse thought of a really creative idea to make this patient’s life better. I love that I'm able to pull all those things and to incorporate them into who I am as a nurse. So, be open to what other nurses have to say, be open to what your patients have to say and set your bar high and know that there's so much you can be doing. You can change lives and you can make a difference.
What can you tell us about mentoring or the importance of mentors in nursing or what would you tell new nurses just starting out in nursing?
What is something about oncology nursing that might surprise others?
CY: We have a wonderful sense of humor. We laugh a lot. People don't necessarily think about that with oncology. But we do. We laugh, all the time, whether it's with patients or just making a heavy situation not so heavy. But yes, we all have a pretty good sense of humor.
AM: Oftentimes when I say I'm an oncology nurse, people say, oh, depressing. And I just find that to be the oddest comment because to me, this is not depressing. This is being part of a medical center that is doing amazing work. The research that we're doing here, the trials that we have to offer, the connection one to one with the patient – I learn so much from the patients and I see bravery every day. I see strength that I didn’t even know is humanly possible. I see love and family members supporting patients in a way that is so remarkable. And to witness that day-to-day, that couldn’t be more empowering for a life. And there's so many patients, they'll bring me gifts, they'll call me to tell me that their child's getting married and things like that. That's a connection that I don't think you find in in this world today. And I love it and I value it. To me it's the reason I will always end up in oncology, that I will always stay in oncology, because it's just beautiful. It's not depressing, at all.
MG: A lot of people ask me, how can you work in oncology for this many years? I love oncology patients because they are the most grateful and because I think they get the priority right about what matters and what doesn't matter anymore. A lot of times people think it's just sad. No, I also learn a lot from my patients. I see it as a privilege to work alongside someone who, otherwise I would never have had an opportunity to get to meet. Any disease, but specifically cancer, doesn't differentiate. Anybody can have the disease and find themselves in the treatment center. So, you get to meet all kinds of people. And you get to learn as a nurse, too. It's not only you give. You are also receiving something.