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Career Profile: Radiation Therapist
Karen Lynne Ullman, Radiation Therapist, Radiologic Technologists – Therapy (R.T.T.), Research Radiation Therapist, Radiation Oncology Branch, Center for Cancer Research, National Cancer Institute, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Maryland
I chose this career because…
I chose to become a Radiation Therapist because after working for a year in the financial world, it was time for a career change. I was always interested in a medical career as both my parents are involved in medicine. My mother is a research nurse and my father is an anesthesiologist, so I was familiar with the medical world.
Growing up in Newport News, Virginia, I remember my family discussing medical topics around the dinner table. Glancing at my parents’ medical textbooks piqued my interest at a very early age. In high school, I enjoyed all of my classes (English, Science, Math, Advanced Placement History) and was ready to pursue a liberal arts college education. I also knew that I wanted a smaller college and one that would allow me to travel and study abroad. I chose to attend Randolph Macon Woman’s College in Lynchburg, Virginia.
Choosing a Major for My Undergraduate Education
Like so many college students, I contemplated many majors (psychology, biology, politics) when I started college, but finally decided on politics. Though I enjoyed a human heredity biology class my freshman year, and considered a career in science, it was not the path I originally pursued. I graduated with a major in politics and a minor in economics. I had a wonderful junior year in England. I spent the entire year abroad studying subjects that pertained to my major and also many classes on the history and culture of Great Britain including art history and literature. It was truly a year I will never forget. I chose to major in politics, but later in life, I think that radiation therapy sort of chose me.
Radiation Therapy Education and Clinical Internship
I applied to the radiation therapy program at Labouré College and within 2 weeks I was saying goodbye to my friends at Putnam Investments and starting a new chapter in my life. During my 2 years of training, including both summers, I learned that the primary responsibilities of a radiation therapist included implementing treatment programs prescribed by a radiation oncologist, and assisting in the planning of treatment with the medical dosimetrist and the radiation physicist. The responsibilities required highly specialized technical skills, as well as, highly developed personal skills for interacting effectively with other members of the oncology treatment team, the patients and their families. I developed skills through an intensive didactic curriculum along with a clinical internship supervised by registered radiation therapists. Internship training was provided at clinical affiliates. After my training was complete, I was eligible to apply for certification through examination by the American Registry of Radiologic Technologists. I took and passed my exam.
• Associate in Science, Radiation Therapy Technology, Labouré College, Boston, Massachusetts
• Bachelor of Arts, Politics, Economics Minor, Randolph Macon Woman’s College, Lynchburg, Virginia
My typical workday involves…
My typical workday involves working with other radiation therapists to treat cancer patients. Radiation therapists are responsible for scheduling patients. We treat patients every 15 minutes. Radiation therapists also operate the Computer Tomography (CT) scanner that is used to plan the patient’s radiation therapy. The CT scanner allows us to view images of the patient’s tumor(s) and other internal tissues and organs. A patient is usually treated Monday to Friday for 5 to 7 weeks. There are times when the treatment is shorter.
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As a general rule, there is not much grossness involved in Rad Onc. Occasionally you do get a very nasty tumor which is open. When they are, they are not pleasant to look at and they have an awful odor.
Tattoos are routine. It's just a little pin prick and only leaves a small dot about the size of a freckle. Yes, we do administer contrast when it is ordered. Many departments have the nursing staff start the IV's and some require the simulation therapist to do it.
We do take X-Rays, but nothing like the diagnostic X-rays. Some sites use Ultrasound to isolate the prostate, and most sites use CT's as part of their simulation for treatment planning. Yes, you will receive training, and no, you do not need further certification as those modalities are used for planning, not diagnostics.
This is also department specific as to how involved the therapist is with brachy procedures. Often the therapist will assist with vaginal and breast treatments. While it is not unheard of, most sites do not have the therapist in on O.R. cases (prostate seeds).
The job market is equally unfavorable to new grads and vets. It is tough right now and has been for several years. The key is to network!! You will find something with a little patience.
It is in the sense that there are financial cutbacks throughout the industry. Reimbursement is less, and therefore they may opt to work with fewer staff.
Many of our patients are terminally ill. Unfortunately, that is the nature of the disease. I would say about 40%ish are. In those cases, you can't look at them that way. You have to know that you are giving them some relief from their pain.
The best part of being a therapist is the patients!!! They are the most amazing, most humble, and most appreciative people…usually. Sometimes if you have a doctor who makes a simple procedure difficult and the patient is lying on the hard table for a long period of time crying because they are in so much pain….THAT gets frustrating.