Three of the most terrifying words an individual can hear are, “You have cancer.” Even discovering a genetic predisposition for developing the disease can be devastating. The “next steps” for either situation can be confusing and overwhelming.

Fortunately, as cancer treatments have improved over the years, so has the approach to care. One area in which registered nurses can contribute to the field is by working as an oncology nurse navigator (ONN).

What Is an Oncology Nurse Navigator?

The Oncology Nursing Society (ONS) defines an oncology nurse navigator as “a professional RN with oncology-specific clinical knowledge who offers individualized assistance to patients, families, and caregivers to help overcome healthcare system barriers.” ONS notes that an ONN also “provides education and resources to facilitate informed decision making and timely access to quality health and psychosocial care throughout all phases of the cancer continuum.”

Oncology nurse navigators are fundamental in helping identify some of patients’ primary barriers to cancer care, which could be financial, psychological, cultural or logistical in nature.

What Are the Benefits of Utilizing ONNs?

Since the establishment of this specialty field, the healthcare industry has seen great benefits for both patients and healthcare organizations as a result of a qualified staff of ONNs. On the patient side, improvements include:

  • shorter time from diagnosis to treatment
  • greater knowledge among patients and caregivers
  • better adherence to treatments/therapies
  • enhanced quality of life

From a healthcare institution perspective, the navigation strategy has realized cost reductions due to fewer readmissions/ER visits, improved patient retention and an efficient referral process.

5 Core Competencies of ONNs

The Oncology Nursing Society has broken down the ONN role to encompass five core competencies: professional role, education, coordination of care, communication and expertise. Each requires critical thinking, compassion and a comprehensive understanding of the intricacies of oncology.

All of these areas extend beyond the patients themselves. A cancer diagnosis reverberates throughout entire families. Caregivers may benefit from attending support groups or investing in the care of their loved ones, which are just some of the many resources ONNs can provide.

The logistics of cancer treatment also require a great deal of participation from the patient’s support system — family members or friends will need to drive patients to and from appointments, schedule appointments, fill prescriptions, provide meals and follow up with results. So, it’s critical that family members and other caregivers are given all the information they need to optimize the patient’s experience.

Sometimes, a language barrier prevents patients and their support system from accurately receiving that information. In such cases, an ONN would facilitate resources to overcome the language barrier and ensure communication is clear and culturally sensitive.

What Types of Training Are ONNs Required to Have?

According to the Oncology Nursing Society, nurses who wish to work in this specialty should have certification through the Oncology Nursing Certification Corporation or any other oncology nursing certification accredited by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies. The Journal of Oncology Navigation & Survivorship (JONS) defines “novice” ONNs as those who have been practicing for fewer than two years. The journal distinguishes “expert” ONNs as those who have been in the role for at least three years and are “proficient in the role of navigator.”

Registered nurses who have earned their Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree are prepared to meet the demands of the ONN role, having gone through training in areas such as patient advocacy and nursing leadership. Additional courses in BSN programs cover topics such as health disparities and the varying health determinants affecting individuals, families, groups and communities — all of which are particularly helpful for nurses entering the oncology navigator specialty.

Bringing Calm within the Storm

As with most nursing positions around the United States, the salary for an ONN varies based on location and population. Per March 2021 data from ZipRecruiter, the average annual salary for an ONN in the U.S. is $82,576, but may reach as high as $131,500.

Cancer treatment requires a multidisciplinary strategy. With all the moving parts, patients and caregivers may feel overwhelmed or frightened. Fortunately, the healthcare community recognizes this and must meet the demand. By investing in this specialty, providers are ensuring ONNs have the tools they need to help navigate these complexities and provide a more calming treatment experience.

Learn more about Eastern Michigan University’s online RN to BSN program.


American Cancer Society: Caregivers and Family

Journal of Oncology Navigation Survivorship: Defining the Role of the Oncology Nurse Navigator

Oncology Nurse Advisor: Oncology Nurse Navigators Reduce Care Delays by Improving the New Patient Referral Process

Oncology Nursing Society:
Role of the Oncology Nurse Navigator Throughout the Cancer Trajectory
2017 Oncology Nurse Navigator Core Competencies

Zip Recruiter: Oncology Nurse Navigator Salary