Why Become a Radiation Therapist?

Training and Education Jobs and Salaries

Treating cancer in the human body is the principal use of radiation therapy. As part of a medical radiation oncology team, radiation therapists use machines called linear accelerators to administer radiation treatment to patients. Linear accelerators, used in a procedure called external beam therapy, project high-energy x rays at targeted cancer cells. As the x rays collide with human tissue, they produce highly energized ions that can shrink and eliminate cancerous tumors.

Radiation therapy is sometimes used as the sole treatment for cancer, but is usually used in conjunction with chemotherapy or surgery. The first step in the radiation therapy process is simulation. During simulation, the radiation therapist uses an x-ray imaging machine or computer tomography (CT) scan to pinpoint the location of the tumor. The therapist then positions the patient and adjusts the linear accelerator so that, when treatment begins, radiation exposure is concentrated on the tumor cells. The radiation therapist then develops a treatment plan in conjunction with a radiation oncologist (a physician who specializes in therapeutic radiology), and a dosimetrist (a technician who calculates the dose of radiation that will be used for treatment).

The therapist later explains the treatment plan to the patient and answers any questions that the patient may have. The next step in the process is treatment. To begin, the radiation therapist positions the patient and adjusts the linear accelerator according to the guidelines established in simulation. Then, from a separate room that is protected from the x-ray radiation, the therapist operates the linear accelerator and monitors the patient’s condition through a TV monitor and an intercom system. Treatment can take anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes and is usually administered once a day, five days a week, for two to nine weeks.

During the treatment phase, the radiation therapist monitors the patients physical condition to determine if any adverse side effects are taking place. The therapist must also be aware of the patients emotional well being. Because many patients are under stress and are emotionally fragile, it is important for the therapist to maintain a positive attitude and provide emotional support. Radiation therapists keep detailed records of their patients treatments. These records include information such as the dose of radiation used for each treatment, the total amount of radiation used to date, the area treated, and the patient reactions.

Radiation oncologists and dosimetrists review these records to ensure that the treatment plan is working, to monitor the amount of radiation exposure that the patient has received, and to keep side effects to a minimum. Radiation therapists also assist medical radiation physicists, workers who monitor and adjust the linear accelerator. Because radiation therapists often work alone during the treatment phase, they need to be able to check the linear accelerator for problems and make any adjustments that are needed. Therapists also may assist dosimetrists with routine aspects of dosimetry, the process used to calculate radiation dosages.

Radiation therapists work in hospitals or in cancer treatment centers. These places are clean, well lighted, and well ventilated. Therapists do a considerable amount of lifting and must be able to help disabled patients get on and off treatment tables. They spend most of their time on their feet and generally work 40 hours a week. Uunlike those in other health care occupations, they normally work only during the day however, because radiation therapy emergencies do occur, some therapists are required to be on call and may have to work outside of their normal hours. Working with cancer patients can be stressful, but many radiation therapists also find it rewarding. Because they work around radioactive materials, radiation therapists take great care to ensure that they are not exposed to dangerous levels of radiation. Following standard safety procedures can prevent overexposure.