The battle against the Big C is ongoing, but the odds are slowly tipping in the direction of effective management, and possibly a cure. Many treatment milestones have improved the chances of cancer patients to survive from 10% to 70%, and one of the more significant ones is radiation therapy. And for the typical day in the life of a radiation therapist, the work hours are typical but the rewards are far greater.
It was actually more than a century before, in 1903, that radiation was first used as a way to zap cancer cells, but it was a rather hit-and-miss affair. It did zap cancer cells, but it also killed normal cells.
However, since the early part of the 1990s, modern technological advances allowed the development of more precise targeting of cancer cells, thus minimizing the damage to normal cells. Radiation therapy is currently one of the most common types of cancer treatments and is used in combination with other therapies.
Radiation Therapy Technologists
A radiation oncologist is a primary mover behind any type of radiation treatment for cancer, but they serve more as a planner and director rather than a doer.
The person behind the mask during radiation treatments is not a medical doctor, but a radiation therapy technologist or radiation therapist. During the day in the life of a radiation therapist, they specialize in the administration of radiation treatments using linear accelerators, a machine that shoots high-energy X-rays at cancer cells.
Radiation therapists are also qualified to operate a CT (Computer Tomography) scanner, which “maps” the area to be zapped. They work as part of a team that includes radiation oncologists, oncology nurses, and medical physicists.
Radiation Therapist Hours
Radiation therapists work regular hours, typically from 9 am to 5 pm, Monday through Friday. While this may seem like a sweet deal for the day in the life of a radiation therapist someone working in healthcare, radiation therapists are almost constantly on their feet during their shift and require supportive socks and good shoes to stay healthy.
Regular radiation treatments are scheduled outpatient services, but there is a high demand for it. A radiation therapist will treat one patient every 15 minutes on average. This includes:
- Explaining the treatment for the day and answering any questions
- Reviewing the patient chart to check the diagnosis, prescription, and identity of the patient
- Positioning the patients correctly
- Ensuring that safety protocols for both patients and operators are in place
- Checking the radiation doses programmed in the machine against the prescription to make sure it is correct
- Operating the machine
- Monitoring the patient
- Keeping precise records of each treatment session for each patient
Is it Hard to Become a Radiation Therapist?
A radiation therapy technologist has to have at least an associate’s degree in radiation therapy. In most states, you also need a state license and accreditation from the American Registry of Radiologic Technologists (ARRT).
Many colleges and universities, as well as vocational schools, offer associate (two-year) and bachelor’s (4-year) degree programs for radiation therapy. However, most states require applicants for a license to complete an ARRT-approved program and pass the certification exam first. States that do not have these requirements include:
- Alaska – you need ARRT certification if you want to work with a facility accredited by the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations
- Michigan – except those that work with mammography equipment
- Nevada – same as Michigan
- New Hampshire
- North Carolina
- South Dakota
In order to qualify for an associate or bachelor’s degree program, you must be a high school graduate or hold a GED certificate. These programs include the minimum acceptable standards for academic proficiency and hands-on training for the work, as well as workshops dealing with techniques in patient care, radiation therapy ethics, and advances in radiation treatment.
Program courses required for an associate degree include:
- Human anatomy and physiology
- Radiologic technology
- Imaging and processing techniques
- Sectional pathology
- Medical terminology
In addition to the course covered in an associate degree program, courses for a bachelor’s degree include:
- Advanced patient care
- Biological aspects of radiation therapy
- Maintenance of radiation equipment
- Radiation protection protocols
- Ethical practices
While some employers are willing to take on radiation therapy technologists with no experience, they do require them to attend workshops or on-the-job training to develop their skills in the field. Some employers also require a minimum number of continuing education credits a year for their radiation therapists.
Aside from education and training, radiation therapists need to have other skillsets as well. They constantly interact with team members and patients, so they have to have good communication skills. They should be able to take direction as they are tasked with keeping detailed records of each patient and to put down their professional impressions on the health and well-being of the patient, they need good writing skills to express themselves in a clear and concise manner.
Radiation therapists should also be able to think on their feet and be physically fit, as some patients will have to be turned or actually lifted. They also have to be careful, because they risk radiation exposure every time they operate the machine. In most cases, radiation therapy techs are in another room while the treatment is ongoing.
Radiation Therapist Salary and Job Outlook
According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, the job outlook for this type of work is promising, the demand expected to increase by 14% between 2014 and 2024.
The good news is an entry-level radiation therapist with an associate degree in the US as a whole makes a median salary of $78,368 a year, although this can vary widely from state to state.
What this chart means is that about half of all radiation therapists in the US make less than $78,368 a year, and the other half makes more. To give you an idea of the variation, here are some cities with basic salary ranges for ARRT-certified radiation therapists as of February 2017:
- Atlanta, Georgia ( $70,282-$86,806)
- Chicago, Illinois ($74,393-$91,883)
- Houston, Texas ($71,285-$88,045)
- Jacksonville, Florida ($68,259-$84,307)
- Boston, Massachusetts ( $79,894-$98,678)
- New York, New York ($82,031-$101,317)
- Columbus, Ohio ($67,896-$83,859)
- San Antonio, Texas ($70,680-$87,298)
- Indianapolis, Indiana ($69,550-$85,901)
- Louis, Missouri ($69,647-$86,021)