Changing Careers to Become an Oncology Nurse

Jacquelyn Lauria said she never thought she'd become an oncology nurse, but looking back, it's easy to see the writing on the wall.

Jacquelyn H. Lauria, RN, MSN

Jacquelyn Lauria said she never thought she’d become an oncology nurse, but looking back, it’s easy to see the writing on the wall.

A candy striper in high school, the family’s health advocate, a biology minor in college…But it took Lauria 15 years of working at a risk-management company, specializing in pharmaceuticals, to realize she was on the wrong path.

“I wasn’t passionate about it,” Lauria said of her senior vice president position at Marsh & McLennan. “I had my job, but there was something that was pulling me toward [nursing].”

“I really wanted to do something with this…[nursing] is something that I could really make a difference in,” she added.

After taking a few years to think about a plan to go back to school and brushing up on her science credits, Lauria traded her full-time job for a part-time one and enrolled in Columbia University’s “Entry To Practice program,” designed for students selecting nursing as a second career.

And while it took Lauria a long time to make the switch to nursing, it didn’t take long for her to pick oncology as a specialty.

Her sister Barbara had been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease at the age of 26 and Lauria’s husband Don had developed prostate cancer. And while both were doing fine with their disease, her brother Michael developed a recurrent brain tumor right before Lauria started school.

“Because of my family experiences in dealing with cancer, I was drawn to oncology,” Lauria said.

She had her clinical rotations at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and the New York Hospital before working part time for 2 years at the oncology department at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital while finishing up her master’s degree.

“I really loved it. I enjoyed it,” Lauria said of her time at Robert Wood Johnson.

And when her schooling was just about done, all Lauria had to do to find a job was look across the street.

“I looked out the window and saw ‘cancer institute’ across the street,” she said. “I was really fortunate that there was a wonderful APN here who was willing to take me on for the last semester before I graduated.”

At the end of the semester, her mentor asked her if she would like to work full time at the Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey.

“I said ‘I would love to, but I don’t know if I’m experienced enough … I’m a new nurse. I’m not young, but I’m a new nurse!’” Lauria said.

Twelve years later, Lauria is an advanced practice nurse at the Stacy Goldstein Breast Cancer Center at Rutgers Cancer Institute where she meets with patients at high risk of developing breast cancer, those with breast cancer,and those who have finished treatment.

“I love it,” she said. “This is what I’m supposed to be doing. It took me a long time to find my passion, but I realize what a difference it makes to have a career that’s part of who I am, not just what I do.”

Making the Switch

Lauria said she spent 2 years planning her career change to make sure it made sense.

Since she had a lot of friends in nursing, Lauria said she was able to get advice about the job market.

“I had a teenage son … I couldn’t quit my job for a year plus and then get done with school and not have a job,” she said. “It was a big change after working so many years in the corporate world and then just stopping. I had to think about finances and make sure that I had my ducks in line before I could do that.”

While she was still working, Lauria went to community college to get the credits she needed to enroll in school and to brush up on her science. “I went back to school at night, three times a week.

“My old credits were pretty rusty,” Lauria joked.

The program that Lauria ended up applying to took 3 years to complete, and during that time, she earned both her bachelor’s and her master’s degrees.

Lauria said that at first, her coworkers were confused by her decisions to switch careers.

“They really shook their heads … they didn’t understand it,” she said. “I had a very good job; I knew I was going to make significantly less money in nursing.”

Lauria also recognized that she would have to start at the bottom and move up the ranks and that there were nurses her age leaving nursing because they were burned out. Because of her confidence in her decision, Lauria said she wasn’t rattled by the naysayers.

“This was something I was more excited about,” she said.

Putting it Into Practice

It didn’t take long for Lauria to put her new nursing skills to use.

While she was in school, Michael was set up at a long-term care facility after having a stroke during one of his neurosurgeries, and his condition was worsening.

“I found myself navigating the palliative care and hospice route, which is something I was unfamiliar with but was learning about,” she said. “I was just barely a nurse, and he was in a facility where they weren’t familiar with hospice.”

Lauria used her new nursing knowledge to call a meeting with the staff. After multiple meetings, the facility had someone come in to help deliver hospice care for Michael before he passed away.

But for Lauria, the biggest accomplishment was what happened after Michael received hospice care.

“It actually turned this facility around, and they all of a sudden were advocates of hospice care,” she said. “I felt like I made a difference and it wasn’t just for my brother.”

Connecting with Patients

Lauria said her experience with cancer in her personal life helps her relate to her patients.

“It’s something that changes your life that you don’t have control over,” she said.

But Lauria also sees the parallels in her patients’ journeys and her journey to become a nurse.

“They’re similar journeys. It’s about changing expectations and marshaling your resources and that’s what we need our patients to do,” she said.

Lauria also said her previous experience with cancer and her career change helped her get a new perspective on life, one that she shares with her patients.

“Don’t waste time, because none of us have an unlimited amount of time. And when you’re in a second career, your timeframe and perspective are different, just like our patients are kind of on a second journey,” she said. “I think I appreciate what they are going through with that.”

Although her husband’s stage IV prostate cancer is under control, Lauria said they don’t put off the things they want to do.

“I wouldn’t have thought that way 15 years ago and I wouldn’t have thought that way if I didn’t have family members with cancer.”

Looking to the Future

Lauria said she plans on staying in nursing as long as she can while continuing to make a difference in the lives of her patients.

She said she knows that she’ll never work as long as some other nurses, but her love of oncology nursing and her enthusiasm to learn will keep her working for as long as she can.

“I’m ready to roll. I’m fresh,” she said. “This is what I want to do.”