An in-depth interview that could help determine whether you'd like to become a nurse.
Talking to Kristine is like talking to an old friend—at least it feels that way, even though we’ve never met before. I called her last week with the plan to conduct a concise and structured interview about her 20+ year career as an oncology nurse. But as soon as she picked up the phone and started talking, it became clear that wasn't going to happen. My carefully prepared list of questions started to slip from my hand, and we launched into a conversation that would take well over an hour. Kristine makes people feel comfortable. It’s clear that that’s just who she is, right down to her core.
But, as I quickly learn, it’s also a big part of her job. “To me, that’s the important part—the relationships you have with people,” she explains. “I want to feel like I’m contributing.”
Can you tell me a bit about yourself? Where are you from? How old are you?
You want my real age—I can’t lie about it? [Laughs] Okay. I’m barely 53, and I have three children, aged 19, 21, and 23. I grew up in Vancouver, B.C.
What do you do?
I’m an oncology nurse, a cancer nurse. Though as a nurse, you’re a bit of everything. You’re a bit of a nurse, a bit of a nutritionist, a bit of a patient family counselor. Nurses often fill in the gaps between the different disciplines.
How long have you been working in nursing?
I graduated from nursing school in 1986, and I’ve been an oncology nurse since 1988. I’ve worked in a couple of different areas in oncology. Initially, I was working in bone marrow transplants, which is all inpatient care, but now I work in outpatient care, with people who come for chemotherapy or radiation treatment.
How did you get into this line of work?
I tried a few different things. I initially thought of working in travel and tourism, but I also realized that, unfortunately, that doesn’t make a lot of money. So then I thought that maybe instead, I should make a living and just travel for fun. I started thinking about marketing and advertising and things like that, but, at the end of the day, I realized that I didn’t want to sell anyone anything. I wanted to do something where I felt like I was contributing to society.
I realized that I didn’t want to sell anyone anything. I wanted to do something where I felt like I was contributing to society.
But I didn’t go into nursing until I was 23. I was working and going to school part-time, doing different things, and I had to go back to school to get my sciences first. (In high school, I didn’t really do biology or chemistry.) When I went back for them, I realized I was very much interested in biology and the human body—the way it works.
What kind of education and training do you need to become a nurse?
Nursing is pretty good in that sense, because you don’t have to go to school for eleven years or anything like that. When I became a nurse, it was a two-year program. Now it’s a four-year program, after which you have to write your RN exam.
There are specialties though. Say you wanted to become an OR nurse, or work in the ICU, you’d usually have to do some specialty training on top of that. But some of the facilities offer that training, and may even pay for it.
So what drew you to oncology, specifically?
After I graduated from nursing school, I worked in a general medical surgical unit for two years. Then I moved to oncology, with a plan to go to a different specialty after a year or two. I think a lot of nurses do that, especially in the beginning of their careers, before they find the area that feels like a really good fit. I hadn’t planned on staying in oncology all this time, but it really just felt like the right place for me to be.
Isn’t the work intense?
Yes, it can be, and it is. In oncology, when people are given a diagnosis, it’s life or death. But seeing people young and old who are faced with that, you realize that we’re all human beings. We may come from all walks of life, but our health is this common denominator.
How do you deal with it?
Nursing can be very busy. There are a lot of different tasks and things to be done, and like in any job, you can get caught up in what you’re doing and lose track of why you’re there. So for me, I always try to hold on to this idea of treating every person like family. I try to remind myself that I’m dealing with a person’s life and appreciate what they may be feeling. I ask myself, “What can I do to make a difference in their life, in their care, in how they’re facing this?” Because to me, that’s the most important thing: to somehow be supportive to that person. To help them make sense of all the medical information they’ve been given, to explain things, to make it not so scary. Of course, it’s still going to be scary and overwhelming and all of those things, but if you can help a little bit—just lower that person’s anxiety and fear—that’s a pretty good feeling. To just be a human being helping another human being is for me, ultimately, what I like to do.
To just be a human being helping another human being is for me, ultimately, what I like to do.
What does a typical day look like for you?
I usually see patients after they’ve met with an oncologist and had a discussion around their cancer diagnosis. There are a few different aspects to my job, but primarily, I assess, advise, and help educate patients and their families about their cancer situation and treatment plan, which can include radiation, chemotherapy, and other drug treatments. I also help advise and sometimes treat patients who are having side effects like pain, nausea, vomiting, or radiation skin reactions. If needed, I will also write referrals to other heath disciplines, either inside the hospital or out in the community.
Usually, there are patients who are pre-booked into my schedule as well as patients who just come in without an appointment. They’ll tell a staff member that they’re feeling really nauseated or ill, and they’ll be added to my list. So it’s kind of like a little mini walk-in clinic, in some ways.
How many patients do you usually see in a day?
That can really vary. You can have one patient who takes up a couple hours of your time, because they’re quite ill; maybe you have to assess them, get an IV going, and get them medications. So it really varies, but on average, I might see about eight patients per day.
Don’t you have to deal with a lot of blood on the job? Doesn’t it freak you out?
You kind of get used to all of that stuff, after a while. There’s a purpose behind what you’re doing, so things like wounds or blood become secondary. You look beyond that. I mean, it’s just blood.
And when you’re becoming a nurse, you’re not thrown into the middle of an operating room and expected to take care of things. It’s a gradual process; you learn the basic things first. You learn to give someone a bed bath, or even to just change a bed. Eventually you become familiar and accustomed to what you’re doing. We’re all capable of doing this, I think, but sometimes we just let our heads get in the way.
Eventually you become familiar and accustomed to what you’re doing. We’re all capable of doing this, I think, but sometimes we just let our heads get in the way.
What kind of hours do you typically work?
I work banker’s hours, baby! [Laughs] It’s nice. I typically work 8 to 4 or 8:30 to 4:30. But before I got married and had kids and I was still working in inpatient care, it would be 12-hour shifts. You’d work two days and two nights, but then you’d get five days off. So you could travel. It was awesome!
That’s the nice thing with nursing; there are lots of opportunities to work and travel. Sometimes the Canadian Board Exam is recognized elsewhere, so you can work in other parts of the world. A lot of people do travel-nursing, which means they’ll go work somewhere else for six months, or even just six weeks.
What’s the social culture like as a nurse? Who do you work with and what are they like?
I work with a small group of nurses, and there are also doctors available to consult with, if we need. I work very closely with the doctors, and there are trusting relationships there; we help each other out. I also work closely with staff in other health disciplines, such as dieticians or counselors, who sometimes play a role in supporting patients through their care. Working in a team like that, communication is essential.
I have to say, in oncology, the people I work with are just great. There are a lot of people who’ve been here a long time—twenty years or more—so they’re like my extended family. We’re aware of each other’s lives outside of work and we’re really supportive of each other. We sometimes do social things together, we check in with each other, and we try to just be good to each other. So everyone is very supportive—personally and professionally.
The people I work with are just great. There are a lot of people who’ve been here a long time—twenty years or more—so they’re like my extended family.
And what about your relationships with your patients?
Well, there’s a balance there. I mean, you can get very close with them, but you also have to remember that, at the end of the day, they’re going to hopefully finish their treatment and go back to their lives. So I usually find a way of ending each relationship, even just by saying something like, “I’ll see you in Costco sometime.” Because although patients tend to be very grateful for the care they received and may have formed some nice relationships with their nurses, once their treatment is finished, they’re usually ready to say goodbye. So it’s a balance. You are giving a lot of yourself—and I think they are too—but you try to keep it professional.
I also often interact with patients’ family members. With a cancer diagnosis, although only one person may be going through the actual treatment, the cancer experience is a family affair, and impacts the family members in many ways. They need information and emotional support too.
What’s your work life balance like?
It’s pretty good. Sometimes you bring your job home with you a bit, but I don't think any more so than anybody else does. There may be people that I think about after work, but for the most part, I can leave work at work.
As a nurse, you quickly learn that you can’t carry everybody’s situation around with you. If you do, you’re not going to be very productive. You’re not going to help anybody that way. Somehow, you find a way of being in the moment when you need to be at work, but then also find that healthy balance at home.
You’ve worked in the same spot for a while.
I have. I’ve been in the same place for the last twenty years.
Is that pretty typical? Do people tend to stay in one position, and at one company, for a long time?
I think when you’ve found the thing that you love doing the most in nursing, you do.
But the nice thing about nursing, though, is that if you want to work part-time or you want a career but you also want to have a family, you can adjust your career to fit your personal needs. I was very lucky that I was able to work full-time for seven years, go to part-time when I started having a family, and then, as my kids got older, pick up a few extra days here and there. A few years ago I went back to full-time again. Nursing is very flexible that way.
You can adjust your career to fit your personal needs … Nursing is very flexible that way.
Are there a lot of opportunities for promotion in this line of work?
Yes and no. A promotion might require more schooling, like maybe getting your Master’s or going all the way to getting your PhD and becoming a Nurse-Practitioner. You can also get into research or management. Now, I’m what I call a “grassroots” bedside nurse. I’m not interested in being an administrator or manager because that would mean moving away from direct patient care. But some people excel at it.
Do you know what the job market is like right now? Is it difficult to find work in nursing at the moment?
I think it’s not bad. They keep saying we need more nurses, because many are my age and going to be retiring in the next five to eight years.
What kind of person succeeds in nursing?
I think it appeals to different people in different ways—I guess because there are so many different aspects to nursing that can be attractive to people. The medical side of it can be so interesting—especially in oncology, where things are changing all of the time and there are always new improvements, new treatments, and new drugs. But although nursing can be very technical, it can also be very simple. Sometimes getting someone a glass of water or a warm blanket is what makes all the difference. That’s what’s so cool about it. It’s a science, but there’s an art to nursing too.
Although nursing can be very technical, it can also be very simple. Sometimes getting someone a glass of water or a warm blanket is what makes all the difference.
So I think you can get a variety of personalities interested in being a nurse. There are so many specialities, so many different pathways you can take once you’re there. You can really kind of feel your way for what attracts you most.
Why do people leave this career?
I don’t know why they’d ever leave it!
But really, I think that if people do leave, it’s because of time constraints. When I think back to when I first started nursing, you were given a bit more time to give quality care. Now, sometimes time constraints can make it more challenging to give the kind of care you really want to give to people. You want to give them some more emotional support, but you know that you’ve got to get this, this, and that done.
What’s the hardest thing about your job?
Often it’s when I’m under a time constraint but I’d like to spend some more time with a patient for whatever reason. I used to get more time to to follow up with patients in their treatments, which was a part of the job I really enjoyed. I got to see people after they finished treatment, and that part was just really satisfying.
And what’s the best thing about what you do?
I guess my favourite thing is when I feel I have helped someone in a moment of crisis—that I’ve somehow eased their pain, whether it’s physical, emotional, or mental. And every day, I get to feel like that. I feel very much appreciated. Nursing is very rewarding that way.
You also get to see people go through this experience and then come out of it and get better. You get to see them come for follow-up appointments once their hair’s growing back and they’re living their life again.
And if anything else, it certainly does make you appreciate your own health. You really do kind of go, “Why am I worrying about the colour of the paint in my kitchen.” You realize that stuff doesn’t really matter much. I feel very fortunate to have gleaned some life wisdom from some of my patients.
What kind of person would you recommend this career to?
A caring person. In nursing school, they actually taught a class on “Caring Attitude.” Caring is really important. You also need to be organized, and you need to be flexible. And because nurses speak with many different generations, it’s a good fit for someone who can appreciate and understand different stages of life. And you have to be able to read people, be able to listen. To be a good nurse, you need to pay attention to what a person is telling you they need as well as what you think they need.
You have to be able to read people, be able to listen. To be a good nurse, you need to pay attention to what a person is telling you they need as well as what you think they need.
I also think most nurses have a good sense of humour. That goes such a long way.
What advice would you give to someone who was considering entering the field?
Work hard. I don’t think being a nurse is a good place if you’re lazy. Put your best effort in, and it will be very rewarding. And be honest. You have to be very upfront and honest, if you’ve made a mistake or something. Because these are people’s lives you’re dealing with. You have to be accountable.
Is there anything that really surprised you about this career?
I guess I’m surprised by how much I like oncology. It certainly wasn’t where I’d planned to be; like I said, I was only going to try it out for a year or two. So I’m surprised by how satisfying it is, and by how now I can’t even imagine doing another job that gives you so much.
As I said, at the end of the day, I usually feel like I’ve helped someone. I think when you do that, you feel good about yourself too. Because to me, that’s the important part, the relationships you have with people. With nursing, you want to feel like you’re contributing.