April 5, 2022

Cancer Awareness Month draws attention to need for oncology professionals

UCalgary Nursing offers graduate certificate for oncology specialization
Hands holding oncology ribbons

With a new cancer centre in Calgary set to open to the public in 2023, there will be an increase in demand for registered nurses with a speciality in oncology. And while nurses can acquire some of the skills necessary for cancer care on the job as they move through their career, those qualifications vary depending on their area of involvement and their aspirations

“Oncology nursing is a highly specialized area and as cancer care evolves — for example, with targeted therapies — it is becoming even more complex and specialized, “says Dr. Catherine Laing, RN, BPE ‘94, BN’98, MN’08, PhD’13, lead of the recently launched UCalgary Nursing Oncology Graduate Certificate.

There has also been a consistent demand for oncology nurses: cancer is not going away.

Now considered a chronic illness, trends in cancer treatments are reshaping delivery of care and nurses are central to that care. According to 2021 stats from the Canadian Cancer Society, it is estimated that about two in five Canadians will develop cancer in their lifetime; about one in four Canadians will die from cancer. The care needs of oncology patients are multi-faceted and so the need for an oncology nursing certificate is higher than ever.

Michelle Durant, BN’02, a clinical nurse educator at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre and Alysia Lathwell, BN’13, bone marrow transplant co-ordinator in Alberta Children’s Hospital Hematology, Oncology, Blood & Marrow Transplant and Immunology unit, are two of the first students to enrol in the inaugural year of the oncology certificate.

Both say a passion for oncology was the main impetus for taking on the challenge of graduate education in addition to their careers. For Durant, who worked primarily in ER until 2019, the certificate also served as her way to return her work on her Master of Nursing degree. 

I have a passion for learning and advancing oncology nursing because our patient population deserves high-level nursing care,” she says.

In the emergency room there is a saying, ‘if you don’t know something, call the experts. In oncology, we are the experts. We have a responsibility to speak up and be the change makers. I want to deliver safe, quality nursing care. This certificate will help me with that.

Lathwell also wants to make an impact in her particular area of oncology. “I love oncology. I love the personal aspect of being a part of a patient's journey. After eight years where I was working, I started to notice places I could make a difference, but I needed the advanced education to make progress without roadblocks. The ability to do this course online while I could still work full-time was an amazing opportunity.” 

Similar to other UCalgary Nursing graduate certificates, the oncology nursing specialization offers four online courses over a one-year period with a focus on preparing nurses for leadership and research related roles. Each course builds on the last with a focus on preparing students for the increasing complexity of cancer care. The teaching expertise includes faculty members and a group from the Tom Baker Cancer Centre. 

“We range in experience from paediatric to adult oncology nursing, with expertise in research, clinical trials, education, health system-level intervention and evaluation, and we all have disease-specific expertise,” says Laing. 

Both Lathwell and Durant have benefited from this diversity in knowledge and also in the diversity of their classmates. “My vision has been dialled into paediatric patients in Calgary,” Lathwell says.

It is incredibly eye-opening to hear the stories from other nurses in my course from adult centres in Calgary, Manitoba, Yukon and Ontario. Sometimes I read discussion posts and think wow, I didn't even know that problem or that resource existed.

The biggest thing I have learned so far is the value nursing has in truly listening to patients,” Durant comments. “I have learned that I need to actually listen, not just listen to respond. 

This oncology graduate certificate will be offered again in fall 2023. For more information on this certificate or any other graduate certificate offered by UCalgary Nursing, please contact the Graduate Programs Office or visit the website.