Radiation therapists are specialized radiology technicians who operate medical linear accelerators (LINACs) to perform radiation treatments on cancer patients. Advancements in technology that have improved the accuracy and safety of the treatments are largely responsible for the increased demand in medical careers such as this.
Radiation therapy is used on about half of cancer patients, either as the primary treatment or in combination with other treatments such as chemotherapy and surgery. It may be used as a primary treatment if surgery on a patient is too risky, such as if the patient has a heart condition and surgery would be too dangerous, or if surgery would be ineffective, such as if the cancer has entered the lymph nodes or the bloodstream. The therapy may be used before surgery. It will shrink a tumor so that surgical removal will be less invasive to surrounding healthy tissue. It may also be used after surgery to eliminate remaining cancer cells.
Newer models of medical linear accelerators, such as the Varian IX, are available at many state-of-the-art cancer centers across the country. It uses a dynamic, targeted, image-guided radiotherapy (IGRT) process that streamlines radiation treatment using a combination of computed tomography (CT) scanning and ultrasound technologies in real time in order to target the cancer more precisely. Using the images as a guide, the machine directs radiation to the precise location of existing cancer cells. The Varian IX also uses what's called a multi-leaf collimator to block the radiation from reaching areas of the body that don't need to be treated, such as the heart or lungs in a breast cancer patient. These improvements have made receiving radiation therapy much safer and more effective. Treatments are painless with no long-term side effects.
Radiation therapists work with a team of specialists, including a radiation oncologist and dosimetrist who determine the length of time of each radiation treatment, as well as how many treatments patients should receive in order to achieve the desired effect. With that information, individuals in this profession position patients properly on the linear accelerator. They then operate the machine from an adjoining room, where they observe patients on a monitor during treatments to make sure they are doing all right. Patients will receive radiation treatments once a day for five days each week for as many weeks as their oncologist prescribes.
The starting salary of radiation therapists averages $55,255 annually. Their salary peaks at $107,230 annually. As you will likely be working full-time for a hospital or cancer treatment center in this job, you will be eligible for medical insurance and other benefits.
Presently, 15,200 radiation therapists are employed in this profession throughout the United States, and demand is expected to increase by 27 percent during the next 10 years. Cities with the highest concentration of individuals in this profession are Gainesville, FL; Fort Wayne, IN; and the Phoenix, Mesa and Scottsdale, AZ area.
An associate's or bachelor's degree is required for radiation therapists. You can also qualify by first becoming a radiology technician and then completing a 12-month certificate program related to this profession. Coursework in such a program includes human anatomy, physiology, physics, computer science and research methodology.
The American Registry of Radiologic Technologists (ARRT) offers the certification examination that you must pass in order to receive a license. The certification must be renewed each year, and it requires that 24 continuing education credits or an additional certification in the radiology field be completed every two years.
Radiation therapists can advance to teaching, technical sales and research positions. They can also become dosimetrists with additional training and certification. Dosimetrists calculate the proper radiation doses for patients using complex mathematical formulas. They also calibrate and provide regular maintenance to linear accelerators.
Radiation therapists may work full-time or part-time shifts, and you may work swing shifts or on weekends and holidays. You need to be able to work in a team environment with doctors and other specialists. You also work individually with cancer patients, some of which can be fragile physically as well as emotionally, so it is important to be able to put patients at ease.
Attention to detail is important for radiation therapists. It's important that you document the exact treatment you've performed on each patient so that you can give them consistent results. You must also be able to take detailed notes with results of the sessions so that the doctor can review patients' progress.
In this profession, you will likely be on your feet most of the time, so you will need to wear comfortable shoes that support your feet. You will also wear a uniform. Because you will be in the adjoining room when treatments are conducted, the chances of getting exposed to radiation are minimal. In fact, being a radiation therapist is safe enough for pregnant women.
Basic Office Skills Required
Radiation therapists need to have basic spelling, grammar and punctuation skills, as well as typing, data entry and 10-key skills. You need to have a working knowledge of MS Word, Excel and Outlook as well as a familiarity with medical databases. Be able to plan ahead and meet deadlines. Verbal communication skills are also needed to be able to answer any questions a patient may have.
Advances in technology are saving people's lives by making treatment plans of cancer patients safer and more effective. As a result, the demand for radiation therapists and other similar medical jobs is expected to increase by almost a third in the next ten years as the technology takes the place of more invasive cancer treatments.
In addition to the BLS.gov, articles on RadiationInfo.org and product information Varian IX linear accelerator product website were used as sources for this review.
Heather is a radiation therapist in a cancer treatment unit of a large hospital, and she loves her job. She works with individuals in other medical careers including oncologists and dosimetrists to establish and carry out radiation treatment plans on cancer patients.
Radiation therapy has been used on cancer patients for years, but new technology available has improved medical linear accelerators (LINACs), machines that are used for radiation treatments. The Varian IX model used at her facility makes high-def, 3-D images by combining CT scanning and ultrasound technologies. Then the embedded computer reads those images in real time to target the location of cancer cells. Radiation is emitted to those locations in a series of treatments.
As a radiation therapist, it is Heather's job to interact with patients, place them in the same position in the linear accelerator for each of their treatments, and operate the machine from an adjoining room. Many of her patients are very frail and need assistance with moving from their gurney to the linear accelerator. She also monitors patients during their treatment sessions to make sure they are doing all right. Although the process is painless, patients may have a hard time staying in the same position throughout the procedure. Although the LINAC doesn't require them to go inside a confined space, it is a very technological piece of equipment that rotates around them.
Heather takes detailed notes of treatment sessions which she forwards to the dosimetrist and the oncologist assigned to each patient along with images from the LINAC, which show the progress of the cancer cell reduction. They review the notes and make adjustments to the treatment plans, if necessary.
There has been an increase in demand for radiation therapists recently because of the more advanced technologies that improve the accuracy and safety of radiation treatments. In addition, routine cancer screenings are catching cancer in patients at earlier stages. Radiation therapy may be used as the primary treatment for cancer, or it may be used in conjunction with surgery or chemotherapy, depending on the case, but it is helping to save lives.
And newer technologies are coming out all the time that improve these processes. Heather learns about them in her continuing education program and through on-the-job training sessions. Heather's education is a combination of medical and computer science instruction.
Working with very ill patients can be stressful on radiation therapists. It is difficult to work with individuals who are experiencing such life-changing events in their lives. Being inflicted with an illness that could kill them causes people to reflect on their relationships with family members and on their life accomplishments. As a result, in her conversations with patients, Heather is reminded frequently of how lucky she is to have good health and a family that loves her.
A radiation therapist is one of a number of medical jobs that allow people like Heather to work with very special patients. She also gets to work with other medical professionals who really care about the people they serve.
Radiation therapists work with cutting-edge technology that is saving lives.
It can be difficult to work with very ill or terminal patients all the time.
Radiation therapists earn a great salary with just a bachelor's degree.