Whether it’s with your smiling patient who always brings sweets to her appointments, the colleague who started when you did, an inquisitive family member, or your supervisor, relationships are an ever-evolving component of successful oncology nursing careers.

Fostering professional relationships among colleagues can often lead to mentoring opportunities that are mutually beneficial for mentors and mentees. Studies have shown that more than 72% of mentees and 65% of mentors reported that their experience was either valuable or very valuable to their practice. Mentoring programs can offer clear benefits to the workplace, including retaining staff, developing leadership skills, enhancing practice knowledge, strengthening communication skills, and combating compassion fatigue and burnout.

The Many Faces of Mentorship

Mentoring opportunities can come in all shapes and fulfill countless needs for those involved. For nurses new to oncology units, navigating the intricacies of nurse-patient relationships can be difficult. ONS member Kristin Ferguson, MSN, RN, OCN®, oncology clinical nurse coordinator at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center in Washington, DC, says that veteran oncology nurses’ experience and knowledge can help newer oncology nurses understand patient relationships.

Oncology Nurses Enhance Cancer Care Through Mentorship Opportunities
Kristin Ferguson, MSN, RN, OCN®

“Working in oncology is unique, because nurses develop relationships with their patients more so than in other specialties,” Ferguson says. “We get to know our patients well, because their regimens involve months and sometimes years of treatment and surgery. Mentoring oncology nurses isn’t just addressing the physical tasks and clinical aspects of care; it’s also about how to interact with patients and develop those relationships. Developing skills to have difficult conversations with patients is easier through mentorship opportunities.”

ONS member Victoria Reiser, BSN, RN, BMTCN®, staff nurse on the stem cell transplant unit at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Shadyside in Pennsylvania, says that mentorship plays a key role in preventing compassion fatigue, burnout, and staff turnover. Reiser recognized the stress that new oncology staff were facing and developed a mentorship program to train and pair experienced nurses with new oncology nurse counterparts.

“The Mentorship Program to Increase Retention and Satisfaction pairs senior nurse volunteers with new nurses after orientation to work on goal setting, career development, and specialty-specific practice topics,” Reiser says. “The mentors were also a source of emotional and psychological support during high-stress work situations.”

Oncology Nurses Enhance Cancer Care Through Mentorship Opportunities
Victoria Reiser, BSN, RN, BMTCN®

Reiser saw an opportunity in her practice to improve the support of new oncology nurses. Moving beyond the existing preceptorship program, Reiser approached her institution to develop a mentorship program that addressed staff retention, burnout, and professional development.

“For our program, we had structured practice topics to review with mentors, but mentees also began to address their personal and professional goals—both at work and outside of work—with their mentors,” Reiser says. “It’s really helped mentees decide which certifications made sense for them. They picked certain personal development areas that weren’t initially intended to be part of the program and pulled from the experience of their mentors to work with them on those topics.”

Although not all institutions have official mentorship programs like Reiser’s, oncology nurses in any setting or workplace can help support their newly initiated colleagues through unofficial mentorship opportunities. Mentorship doesn’t look the same in every practice, and that’s okay, Ferguson notes. The important aspects include building relationships and confidence, opening lines of communication, addressing burnout, and improving practice knowledge through regular interactions and shared experiences.

Mutually Beneficial Relationships

From career guidance, to enhancing practice knowledge, to simply having a colleague who understands your experiences as a nurse, mentorship opportunities can offer several practical benefits to nursing.

“Mentorships can build confidence in oncology nurses,” Ferguson says. “Mentors can help their mentees understand how to have the difficult conversations with their patients during critical moments in their care, which is important to ensure treatment continues smoothly. Addressing compassion fatigue is another element of mentorship, because working in an oncology environment can be stressful.”

Through collaboration and shared experiences, mentors and mentees often create reciprocal relationships.

“Mentorships allow nurses to bounce ideas off their mentors, to discuss what actions they should take in complex situations, and even just to vent, which is important in an oncology setting,” Ferguson says. “Sharing difficult practice experiences with your friends and family is good, but it’s beneficial to discuss the tough moments with those who know what you’re going through. Mentors and mentees can be sounding boards to offer useful advice and wisdom in those situations.”

Reiser notes that mentors often experience a feeling of satisfaction and pride when helping new nurses navigate difficult situations. Moreover, it motivates mentors to think about their future goals and professional development as they have those conversations with their mentees.

“The mentors I’ve spoken with love the ability to give back or share their experiences,” Reiser says. “We’ve all been in a spot where we wish we had someone to look to, and mentors are happy filling that role. They’re able to build their own leadership skills by learning about what it is to be a mentor and the skills behind it. Helping mentees develop goal planning often allows mentors to think about goals for themselves.”

Ferguson has also found that veterans can garner useful information from their newer colleagues’ experiences.

“Everyone can learn from new experiences and different aspects of care,” Ferguson says. “Mentorship doesn’t need to solely focus on new oncology nurses. It can be beneficial across the spectrum of experience. Learning from your colleagues is a regular part of being an oncology nurse, and mentorship isn’t always in an official capacity. Having conversations about unique problems in care can help improve the knowledge base for everyone.”

How Mentorship Differs From Preceptorship

Preceptorships typically occur at the beginning of a nurse’s tenure in oncology. It’s a structured, systemic process to help nurses understand the clinical elements of an oncology unit, and it lasts only for the first six months of practice. As a complement, mentorship can help fulfill the emotional and psychologic aspects of care. It addresses many of the intangible elements that preceptorship doesn’t always cover.

“Preceptors are task oriented, and their programs are defined by the institution,” Reiser says. “Our mentorship program is a little more flexible. It’s more of a transactional relationship and an exchange that can focus on the psychosocial elements of oncology nursing, along with goal planning and professional development. Where preceptorships address what you need to do to be an oncology nurse, mentorships identify what you need to grow as an oncology nurse.”

Both preceptorship and mentorship serve crucial roles in oncology nursing. According to Reiser and Ferguson, preceptors may find themselves drawn to mentorship roles, because they are often suited for leadership roles, knowing how to advocate and advance their colleagues.

Growing Mentorship in Your Practice

“In terms of impacting patients and patient outcomes, mentorship provides nurses with pride and confidence in their practice. It helps them build their critical thinking and patient management skills,” Reiser says. “Institutionally, staff support is an important aspect of retaining nurses. Having nurses work together on quality improvement projects and taking on leadership roles can provide clear benefits to an institution, especially as mentees pursue certification and other ways to grow oncology nursing on their unit.”

Ferguson notes the importance and benefits of institutions supporting official mentorship programs.

“Having an actual program can be really beneficial to everyone,” Ferguson says. “Mentorship creates a good community for nurses. It builds the teamwork aspect of a unit and promotes collaboration among a team.”

Whether your institution has a standing mentorship program or mentorship is simply occurring informally among individual providers, fostering relationships and growing mentorship programs can only serve to improve oncology nursing and the care they give for their patients with cancer.

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