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Spring 2024 Issue

Cancer Registry: Pathway to a Career as a Cancer Registrar
By Susan Chapman, MA, MFA, PGYT
For The Record
Vol. 36 No. 2 P. 6

Cancer registries serve to gather and analyze information from cancer patients. Such data benefits researchers, care providers, and health officials, allowing them to get a better picture of the disease’s occurrence, current treatments, and survival rates with a goal of advancing prevention measures, screenings, and future research and treatments. Most cancer registries exist in hospitals where all cancer diagnoses, treatments, and known outcomes are documented and then provided to their respective central or state registries, which also gather information from laboratories and individual providers. There are also specialized cancer registries, or special-purpose registries, that aggregate and analyze information on specific forms of cancer or from unique populations.1

Certified tumor or cancer registrars—the individuals responsible for capturing and disseminating cancer information—are health information professionals who work in tandem with stakeholders to comply with reporting requirements, develop effective programs, and offer additional information to help with cancer prevention and treatment. Additionally, cancer registrars ensure data compliance with state and federal requirements, prepare reports and analyze data for physician and administrator use, and follow patient treatment protocols and outcomes. Not only can cancer registrar positions be found in hospitals and state registries but some work at the federal level, for instance, at the CDC and other government-run facilities.1, 2

Individuals who seek positions in cancer registries are generally detail-oriented, organized, and efficient and possess strong analytical skills. They also often have knowledge of human anatomy and physiology. Because the environments in which cancer registrars work are typically busy and require managing multiple information streams, cancer registrars tend to be disciplined in focus and adept at multitasking.1

The HIM field is expanding in the United States—a trend that can then influence the need for cancer registrars, particularly in areas of the country that have multiple hospitals or where central registries are located. Working remotely can be an option for those interested in this field, and a cancer registrar can sometimes secure work in an area that is rich with employment opportunities without having to relocate from a location with fewer available positions. In the case of remote work, however, some organizations require an individual to have prior experience as a cancer registrar before offering them a remote opportunity.1

The National Cancer Registrars Association (NCRA) is the chief organization that represents those professionals who work in cancer registries. The NCRA was founded in 1974 as the National Tumor Registrars Association. Its original purpose was to promote research and education and create standards for cancer registrars, share important information about the field with its members, and help improve and standardize how registry information is gathered. Today, the NCRA continues to offer education and advocacy for its members. The organization has a certification board, the Council on Certification, that manages the Certified Tumor Registrar (CTR®) examination and its members’ maintenance of the credential they earn once passing the test. The CTR® credential, which is nationally recognized for both recruitment and retention of cancer registry professionals, “sets the standard for professional excellence in the cancer registry field.”1

Recently, the CTR® credential underwent a significant name change. On January 1, 2024, the NCRA renamed the CTR® credential the Oncology Data Specialist (ODS) credential, noting that “[t]he new name better aligns with the evolving scope of practice of cancer registrars and current professional practice terminology.”1 Given that the CTR® credential has been well known throughout the cancer-registry field, the NCRA estimates that the full transition to the new name will take about a year. To assist in the name transition for credential holders, human resource departments, and other entities that are affected by the change, the NCRA created the ODS Toolkit, which includes important information on the name change, marketing materials, and other recommendations on how best to educate stakeholders.1

Within the AHIMA Store, AHIMA and the NCRA developed a Cancer Registry Management (CRM) Program, consisting of six cancer registry courses as well as four prerequisite courses (ie, Introduction to Healthcare Technology and Information Systems, Anatomy & Physiology, Medical Terminology, and Pathophysiology & Pharmacology.) The last step after completing these courses, available through AHIMA’s Store, is to complete a practicum. A link to the NCRA Practicum Guide is provided within the program description, and the link to the CRM Program is https://my.ahima.org/store/product?id=66551.

AHIMA notes that those who complete the program are able to do the following:

• “accurately abstract health information into a cancer registry to allow for uniform data collection;

• “manage an effective cancer registry program at a local, state, or national level;

• “produce cancer-related information to assist health care providers in patient care and research; and

• “provide information for cancer prevention activities.”2

According to Jennifer Young, MSEd, RHIA, CCS-P, CAPM, AHIMA’s workforce development manager, “Having this training and ultimately passing the NCRA credentialing exam can open the door to greater opportunities for aspiring cancer registrars. About nine years ago, on January 1, 2015, the Commission on Cancer (CoC) Standard 5.1 Cancer Registry Credentials—all case abstracting must be performed by a Certified Tumor Registrar—took effect. Therefore, passing the exam became required for professionals who perform cancer-case abstracting roles in facilities accredited by the CoC. So, earning this credential is very important.”

For those seeking cancer registrar positions, the NCRA suggests several educational pathways. For example, earning an associate degree in CRM, accruing practicum hours at a cancer registry, passing the ODS credentialing examination, and maintaining that credential through continuing education courses is one avenue. Another is to complete all of the above, but in place of earning an associate degree, the prospective cancer registrar would take 60 hours of courses at the college level and obtain the CRM certificate.

A third recommended pathway is to graduate with an associate degree or take 60 hours of college-level courses, with six of those credit hours in anatomy and physiology. The person who follows this route would then also need to have more than 1,950 hours of experience in a cancer registry, pass the ODS examination, and remain credentialed through continuing education.1

According to the NCRA, the average salary for a cancer registrar is just under $60,000 per year, while a person in a midlevel management role can earn roughly $10,000 more per annum. An individual in a management or director position can earn closer to $80,000 yearly. Obtaining a credential can also result in financial benefits. Prospective employees with an ODS credential can typically garner a salary that is 50% higher than that of those without it.1

In the United States in 2023, the National Cancer Institute projected that about two million people would be diagnosed with some form of cancer, with more than 600,000 individuals losing their lives to the disease.3 “These statistics make role of a cancer registrar all the more important and meaningful,” Young says. “While people in these positions are not directly responsible for patient care, the information they gather, analyze, and report on can have an enormous impact on our understanding of the disease, new treatments, and outcomes. The more researchers and physicians learn about cancer and its effective treatments through available quality data, the greater the chances are that those diagnosed early on will survive. And, hopefully, those critical, dedicated efforts will one day lead to a cure.”

— Susan Chapman, MA, MFA, PGYT, is a Los Angeles–based freelance writer and editor.


1. What is a cancer registry? National Cancer Registrars Association website. https://www.ncra-usa.org/About/Become-a-Cancer-Registrar/What-is-a-Cancer-Registry

2. Cancer registry. AHIMA website. https://www.ahima.org/education-events/education-by-product/cancer-registry/

3. Cancer stat facts: common cancer sites. National Cancer Institute Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results Program website. https://seer.cancer.gov/statfacts/html/common.html#:~:text=How%20Many%20