Career profile: So you want to be a Radiation Therapist?

Paola Gonzalez, Reporters

So you want to be a radiation therapist? 

Radiation therapists work with oncologists to help people fight cancer. They use radiation to stop cancer cells from growing in patients’ bodies. They work with special computer software to calculate the best beam angle, distance, and size to treat the area in order to have the least amount of side effects. Radiation Therapists also calculate treatment doses, control settings on the machines, and keep records for the patients. In our community, you can find a radiation therapist in a nearby hospital, such as McNeal.  

There are many private and public universities that you can attend to pursue a career in radiation therapy. In order to become an entry-level radiation therapist, you must receive a degree in radiation therapy and become certified by the American Registry of Radiologic Technologists (AART). The least expensive university in Illinois to receive an associate’s degree seems to be at Malcolm X College, for about $3,070 a year. However, if you want a greater chance of finding a job in the field, you can earn a bachelor’s degree. You can attend private-religious universities such a North Central College and the University of Saint Frances to receive a bachelor’s degree, however, the most economic university in Illinois to earn this degree is at Roosevelt University for $27,300 per year. When choosing what school to attend, beware for proprietary schools such as Northwestern College because they are private for-profit which means they are owned and run by a private organization that charges you tuition, but doesn’t necessarily spend it on your education. Attending a proprietary school can cause you to end college with an immense student loan. 

Natasha Hadrych-Rosier has worked in healthcare for nearly 20 years. She began working part-time as a limited license technologist while being a radiography student. Natasha Hadrych-Rosier is currently a Radiation Therapy Manager at the American Society of Radiologic Technologists. She has also worked as a Lead Radiation Therapist at the Ironwood Cancer and Research Center and as a Staff Radiation Therapist at Arizona Oncology Associates. She has also worked as a PRN Diagnostic Radiographer and as a PRN Limited Diagnostic Radiographer. She has experience conducting portable exams, bronchoscopy, ER exams, and more. She has also worked with equipment such as Elekta and Varian machines.  

Q & A 

Q: Tell me about your job. Is what you do differently in any way from what others in your occupation do? 

A: Once radiation therapy has been included as part of a patient’s treatment, they will be scheduled for their simulation. In short, the simulation is where the patient’s treatment setup is determined and the necessary data for constructing the treatment plan is collected. Then the plan is usually constructed by a Medical Dosimetrist, this is where the prescription requirements are used to ensure the treatment delivery meets with what the physician has set for the patient. After the plan is approved, often a Quality Assurance (QA) check is performed, then the patient may come in for pretreatment setup verification on the actual treatment machine. After everything has been approved and verified, the patient will usually come in for daily treatments (although other delivery schedules may be used). 

 Other duties, although this isn’t a comprehensive list, include: 

  • daily billing for treatment 
  • billing and documentation verification 
  • establishing and performing QA measures 
  • troubleshooting machine and software issues 
  • beta testing 
  • administrative and facility management 
  • routine chart rounds – where patients undergoing treatment are reviewed with a group of radiation therapy professionals 
  • patient care and adverse effect instructions 
  • creating patient information packets 
  • transitioning from paper to electronic charting 
  • establishing Quality Checklists for new and ongoing patient treatment needs 

 In my current role at the American Society of Radiologic Technologists, the world’s largest radiologic science association, I mostly work to ensure there is continuing education material, in the form of articles, online education formats, and conference content at one of the largest annual radiation therapy conferences in the US. I’ve also developed several education modules for radiation therapy students. I work on various committees and as a liaison to other professional organizations and volunteer groups striving to improve the radiation therapy profession and treatment delivery. I also function as a subject matter expert and largely do whatever I can to support the profession. 

Q: Can you tell me about your background and how you decided to become a radiation therapist? 

A: I kind of fell into the profession, I had been working to become a dental hygienist, but the college I was attending based their program applicant selection on a lottery. So, I applied for several other programs that I was interested in, I was accepted to all except dental hygiene. I narrowed my options down to nursing and radiography – in the end, I chose radiography. As I was nearing the end of my education, I knew I want to specialize in something and my grandmother, who had passed by this point, had been diagnosed with three separate primary cancers over a 10-year spread. I had helped care for her over the years and so I ventured into radiation therapy. 

 I had no interest in management; instead, I thought to pursue a medical dosimetry certification. My path seemed to take me down another road because I kept finding myself in the position of leadership and I took that as a sign that I was meant to go into management. Although you don’t have to be a manager to be a leader, I felt that it would be beneficial to expand my educational background into management and administration. That’s how I got to where I am today, and I love what I do. I miss working with patients, but I feel very fortunate to represent and work for my fellow therapy professionals. I love learning and I learn something new every day. 

Q: What personal characteristics are required for someone to be successful as a radiation therapist? 

A: It may seem a little cliché, but I would say the best qualities are a string of words: teamwork, meticulousness, precision, compassion, forethought, prudence, planning, ingenuity, creativity, resourcefulness, strength, passion, diligence, perfectionism, empathy, kindness, and humility. 

Q: How much job security is there for people in your field? 

A: The only constant in the world is things change, so I can’t say with any certainty what the future holds, but there is always a need for good healthcare professionals. I don’t think that this particular profession is going away anytime soon, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for evolution and with evolution comes opportunities. 

Q: What other jobs could you do with the skills you have gained as a radiation therapist?  

A:  I could continue my education or branch out into something else; like becoming a midlevel practitioner, medical dosimetrist, medical physicist, or even a physician. I could work in research, radiation quality control, product development, applications training or sales. I could teach or work with regulations and legislation. I can work in management, administration, or professional development. 

Q: What do you think the future hold for people that are radiation therapists? 

A: I think that compassionate caregivers will always be needed – it’s an ever-changing world, but I don’t see a future where people don’t get sick and hurt and that means there will likely always be a need for people to care for them. 

Q: What are the biggest challenges you face by being a radiation therapist? 

A: A lack of minimum certification and education requirements across the country – there are many states that still do not have minimum requirements, which can compromise safety and patient care. I also believe budget cuts pose a particular challenge – budget cuts often mean doing more with less and that in turn can compromise safety and patient care as well. 

Q: Are there many opportunities in your field? What should people do to get started? 

A: I would say that there are many opportunities and the best place to start is with any focused career would be an education in an accredited program and then work towards professional certification. 

Q: What was the most difficult part of becoming a radiation therapist? 

A: I can’t speak for everyone, but for me, it was knowing I’m human and that means I’m not perfect. When you work with high dose radiation, you can’t take it back once you give it. I think mistakes are inevitable; you have to learn to live with them and not forget them but use the experience to be better. We are the last step in a long line of safety checks for our patients. Which is one reason that it is so important to work in teams because the team serves to double check each other. 

Q: What is your favorite thing about being a radiation therapist? 

A: The patients, they are some of the most incredibly inspiring people and that is something that I miss from working in the clinic. In addition to providing them the best treatment I was able, I felt it was my job to make them smile at least once a day and I was pretty good at that, and they made me smile every day too. Our patients aren’t nameless people, they are our friends, our family, the people we love and care about, what could be better than helping them? 

Q:  What would you say makes being a radiation therapist better over other similar occupations? 

A: It’s not about us or what we do, it’s about the patients and what they need; so I wouldn’t say being a radiation therapist is better than similar occupations. We call it multidisciplinary because it takes all of us from every aspect of healthcare to do what we do for our patients. My path happened to bring me to radiation therapy and now to a supportive role for the profession; that’s what I can contribute to advance the quality of life for patients. I respect and admire those who work in other disciplines; everyone plays an important role in the long-term quality of life of every patient. For example, we could not give quality treatments without the treatment machines; which means the engineers who maintain and repair the machines and the physicists who calibrate and ensure the machines are accurate are every bit as important to the process. 

Q: If you could go back in time, would you still decide to become a radiation therapist, or would you choose a different career? Why? 

A: I’m proud of the person I’ve become, so I don’t think I would change anything. It’s our decisions, bad and good, that make us who we are. If I had chosen a different path, then I would be a different person. Although not all of my life choices were good choices, they brought me to who I am today. 

Q: What was the most difficult part of the schooling required to become a radiation therapist? 

A: I went through an online program and physics is a tough subject to grasp in an online setting, although remembering the lymph node pathways and everything involved with lymph nodes was also quite challenging for me.