What is the worst thing you've witnessed as an oncology nurse?

Specialties Oncology


HI, you might recognize me from such posts as; "whats is like to be an oncology nurse" and "whats the worst thing you have seen in the burn unit"

Anyhow, i am curious to know what the worst thing you have seen as an oncology nurse (or any nurse who has sen someone w/ cancer) (e.g most disgusting, saddest.. ect...)

Might seem weird that i keep asking this, but i want to know if i can handle the job or not! :uhoh21: ( i must admit, i am a BIT nervous)

Lookin' forward to your replies...



6 Posts

many sad momoent is oncology. the worst...a 35 yo f with breast ca who died and her 7 yo daughter holding her hand crying mom don't leave me:o

Specializes in Pediatrics.
:o That's so sad, chemo. I think I actually just experienced one of the grossest things, about 15min ago. I drew blood from a port of a 6yr old with lymphoma. I looked in the syringe, and there was 'stuff' in it (kind of white and clumpy), I showed it to another nurse, and she suspected it was pieces of tumor. I wanted to vomit and cry at the same time.

Tweety, BSN, RN

33,494 Posts

Specializes in Med-Surg, Trauma, Ortho, Neuro, Cardiac.

The white and clumpy stuff could have been plaque deposits. I've had that happen on a couple of occasions.

I'm not an oncology nurse, but I recently had a patient who came from home and had neglected the skin cancer on his face. Half of his cheek and temple area was eaten up. He was in his 90s, and eventually passed. Was such a sad situation.

Hellllllo Nurse, BSN, RN

3 Articles; 3,563 Posts

I'm not an onc nurse either, but as a former hospice nurse, I cared for many CA pts.

Worst things-

Young pt w/ terminal melanoma, had a six inch high tumor protruding from the shoulder. It looked just like a volcano with blood erupting out of it like lava.

Another pt w/ rectal CA w/ mets. This pt had fissures and fistulas all through the intestines and abdominal wall. BM oozed out of many adominal openings. The pt was always in a huge mess, despite constant care, and the smell was unbelievable. Very nice pt. This pt had made peace, and died peacefully.

Fungating breast CA, with spontaneous amputation (what was left of the breast fell off) and there were maggots in the tissue. Also, a wonderful person.

Saw a lung CA pt cough up a chunk of something gray and black. I saved it in a baggy, and asked the doc what it was. He said it was a piece of lung.

Had a pt w/ a giganitic ovarian tumor, which took over her entire abdomen, and completely occluded her bowel. She was told that she should not eat, but did anyway. She had copious amts of fecal emesis, and had to undergo palliative sedation.

The most heartwrenching are the pts w/ brain mets which causes them to behave in an extremely psychotic matter, and be extremely aggitated- violent and in terror, or just totally loopy. This can almost always be controlled w/ meds, but sometimes it takes a while.

I take that back- the most heartwrenching thing is when a pt is in great need of pain mgmt, and we have the ability to make them comfortable, but the family member who has the Durable Power of Attorney won't allow it, or a doc ignorant of pain and sx mgmt won't allow it.

But, there are lots of good things, too. There are pts who tell you that they have been in agonizing pain for months, and they cry with relief and joy when we are able to make them pain free.

There are the pts and family members who are very angry and in denial, fighting with each other and blaming each other, hateful to staff. It is a wonderful thing to see when they finally accept the situation, and in doing so, are sometimes able to come to terms with their lives- their regrets and their joys, and have a very meanful last few days and death.


145 Posts

My worst day as oncology was in house on a Saturday. Four of our patients died inone day. one on another floor. We got word after. Each nurse on the floor had a patient die that day. We were all a mess. Luckily I got to leave at 3pm, but the others had to stay until 7. Each pt that died that day had been on our floor several times for treatments and such. That was a sad day. :crying2:

I just had a 28 year old mom die of cervical cancer that could have been cured if she had only been treated when first diagnosed. Denial is a terrible thing. :crying2:

The grossest thing I can think of now is a women who recent died of vulvar cancer after several resections she had a cavernous whole where her vulva had been. each time she came into the clinic she had more cancer it was gross and smelled awful!

The worst thing about my job is when young people die who could have lived if they only had been treated. Like I said denial is a terrible thing!


582 Posts

I currently work on the onc floor as a nursing asst. I graduate in less than 2 wks and will be working on onc as an RN then. I have seen lots of sad stuff as well.

The saddest thing, I think, is when the cancer is 1st diagnosed and that person refuses tx...then comes back yrs or months later hoping for a miracle cure and dies soon after. I have seen this happen a few times and it really gets to me. Especially treatable cancers like cervical. As sad as it can get working on that floor...I LOVE IT TO PIECES!! I love the feeling of helping people in their most vulnerable time of their life. Our oncology dept is the best place in our entire hospital to work. I have floated to other floors and never felt such a sense of teamwork and caring.

Specializes in Pediatrics.
:o :o Sadder even, is seeing kids diagnosed at stage 4, because the pediatrician poo-poo'd the fever, uri symptoms, or the leg pain of the toddler "he's just being lazy and wants you to carry him" (true story). The denial is different in peds- they all seek treatment immediately. Their denial comes at the end, when they can't let go, and make their kid suffer endlessly (intubated in the PICU). It's not always like this in the end though.

Hellllllo Nurse, BSN, RN

3 Articles; 3,563 Posts

The saddest thing, I think, is when the cancer is 1st diagnosed and that person refuses tx...then comes back yrs or months later hoping for a miracle cure and dies soon after. I have seen this happen a few times and it really gets to me. .

We see this in hospice, too!

We've had pts who reject traditional medicine, and spend their life savings on "miracle cures". Being near the border, I've seen a lot of pts who have spent their life savings at "cancer cure" clinics in Mexico.

We got them when they are terminal, and BROKE.

leslie :-D

11,191 Posts

i've seen some pretty horrific situations with fungating cancerous lesions; those literally eat through your skin. but there is one patient that i will never ever forget and it wasn't what i saw but heard. this pt. screamed and screamed in pain until he took his last breath.....years later these screams still echo in my ears.


25 Posts

It takes a special person to be an oncology nurse. I could never do it. I am 23 years old now and I was 8 years old holding my mom's hand begging her not to leave me. Yes, she had the dreadful word, malignant lymphoma. The nurses were so wonderful. They let me play with all the equipment (whether it was her home health nurse or her nurse at the hospital) If you are an oncology nurse, you have no idea what you mean to me. My very first clinical on the oncology floor, I had a pt with Gastric Cancer. Guess what, he died while I was caring for him. Every nurse is special, but to me oncology nurses are extra special. I said when my mom died that I was going to be a nurse, and the oncology nurses are the reason why. I just wish I could do it. :)

renerian, BSN, RN

5,693 Posts

Specializes in MS Home Health.

Errosive breast Ca/oral cancer


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