When speaking with others on the topic of career choices in radiology, oftentimes the job title of “radiation therapist” comes up. While this position is a bit different than an x ray technician’s role, it is good to note that it is also a fast growing and important career choice to consider. We thought it would be helpful to provide detailed information on radiation therapy and the differences of this job compared to radiology positions.
A radiation therapist is a health care professional who specializes in using radiation to treat cancer. Other titles radiation therapists may go by include radiation therapy technologist or registered radiation therapist (RTT). As a radiation therapist, you would be a part of a medical radiation oncology team. Your job would be to use a machine called a linear accelerator on patients. Frequently, the procedure that you would perform on your patients would be external beam therapy. In this type of therapy, the linear accelerator is used to project x-rays at cancer cells. When the x-rays come in contact with the targeted tissue, highly energized ions are produced, and hopefully, these ions will shrink or destroy tumors. Sometimes, radiation therapy is the only treatment a cancer patient will receive; however, most of the time, radiation therapy accompanies surgery or chemotherapy.
A linear accelerator is not the only machine you would operate as a radiation therapist. You, along with your team, will be responsible for putting together a treatment plan. In order to get a better idea of the tumor in question, you will either use an x-ray machine or a computer tomography scan on the patient. With the x-ray or CT results in hand, the radiation oncologist, the doctor who specializes in radiology, and the radiation physicist, the health care professional who calibrates the linear accelerator, will develop a treatment plan. When the patient comes in for treatment, it’s your responsibility to position the patient and the linear accelerator correctly to get the best results, and to write down exactly how the patient and machine were positioned so these positions can be replicated later on. You will also need to explain to the patient what they’re about to undergo and answer patient questions.
Once the patient and the linear accelerator are ready, you will retreat to another room that has x-ray shielding. You will operate the linear accelerator from this room and start the treatment, which usually takes around 10 to 30 minutes. Although you are in a different room from the patient, you will be able to monitor the patient through a TV monitor and an intercom system. You need to make sure the patient does not suffer any bad reactions during the treatment, and if they become anxious or upset, you may need to talk them through the procedure.
The last part of your job is to keep records of the treatment. Important information you will need to write down includes how much radiation was used during a specific treatment and during the overall treatment, what part of the body was treated and how the patient reacted to the treatment. Radiation oncologists utilize this information to make sure that the treatment is working and that there are as few side effects as possible. In addition to record keeping, you may get to help the dosimetrist, the person who calculates the dose of radiation to be used, with routine tasks.
Most radiation therapists work at hospitals or cancer treatment centers. This is a physically demanding job; you can expect to find yourself standing for the majority of the work day, and you may be required to lift patients when positioning them. Unlike many other health care professionals, radiation therapists can expect to have 40 hour work weeks with normal shifts and few to no emergencies. Some people find working with cancer patients stressful and depressing; however, others thrive in this environment and appreciate the fact that they are helping people by being a valuable member of the oncology team.
To become a radiation therapist, you’ll need to go to school. Students interested in this profession should look into certificates, associate degrees or bachelor’s degrees in the fields of radiation therapy or radiography. There are over 100 radiation therapy programs in the United States that are accredited by the American Registry of Radiologic Technologists (ARRT). In addition to a degree, many states and employers require radiation therapists to be certified by the ARRT and licensed by the state.
If you’re interested in a career that offers job stability, then radiation therapy is for you. The number of jobs in this field is increasing far more rapidly than anticipated. As of 2008, 15,200 jobs were available in the field. By 2018, the number should be 19,400, a 27 percent increase. One reason for this increase in jobs is the fact that as the baby boomers continue to age, more people will require treatment by radiation therapists. Also, since radiation therapy is becoming safer with each passing year, it is prescribed more frequently, which leads to a greater demand for radiation therapists. Radiation therapists also make good money; in 2008, the median annual salary for a radiation therapist was $72,910. The average radiation therapist can make anywhere between $59,050 and $87,910.