Career Profile: Radiation Therapist
Find out if you have what it takes to be a radiation therapist.
November 22, 2011
Medical advances have made radiation therapists among the most sought-after specialists in the field of radiological technology.
“Improvements in cancer treatment have enhanced survival rates, so there are more patients requiring therapy,” according to a study by Allied Consulting, a national healthcare staffing firm in Austin. Indeed, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics projects much faster-than–average job growth for radiation therapists through 2016.
Practicing radiation therapists say two aspects of their work make it an especially attractive career. First, there’s the opportunity to play an integral role in patients’ recovery. Second, they enjoy the challenges that arise from the medical and scientific advances associated with cancer treatment.
Working as part of a team supervised by radiation oncologists, radiation therapists deliver ionizing radiation to a precise point in the body. Radiation therapy can be used alone or in conjunction with the other two methods used to treat cancer — surgery and chemotherapy.
Leila Bussman-Yeakel, RT, program director of radiation therapy at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, says radiation therapists must be sticklers for details. “It’s not like an X-ray, where if you slightly misposition the patient, you can do it over,” she explains. “You must precisely hit that cancer without damaging healthy tissue nearby.”
Maureen Larkin, RT, technical director of radiation oncology at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC), says that one-on-one patient interaction is a critical part of this job. “You’re not just pushing a button,” she says. “You work with that patient every day,” usually for several weeks.
That’s why compassion and empathy are critical. “You see people every day who are not only trying to cope with cancer, but wondering about things like, ‘Will I get to my daughter’s graduation?’” Bussman-Yeakel says.
In most states, radiation therapists must pass a two-year training course and then become certified. The American Registry of Radiologic Technologists administers the national certification exam. In addition, some states require radiation therapists to be licensed.
While a degree is not yet required, experts recommend that aspiring radiation therapists earn a bachelor’s degree, since, by the time they finish both the training and certification, they’re only about 30 credits shy of a bachelor’s anyway.
Radiation therapists are posting mean salaries of about $71,500 a year, according to the American Society of Radiologic Technologists’ 2007 Wage and Salary Survey.
Michael Shanahan, RT, technical manager in radiation oncology at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia, funded his education through a union he’d joined. A former electrician, Shanahan completed a two-year training program at New York City’s Montefiore Medical Center and then got his license. In his 10 years at NewYork-Presbyterian, Shanahan has been regularly promoted, most recently to his current position after only three years as a senior supervisor.
“I saw the radiation therapists being challenged on a daily basis,” he says of his decision to pursue radiation therapy over other radiologic specialties, which he thought might turn out to be more “cookie cutter.”
Diverse Challenges, Personal Rewards
Danielle Gencarelli, RT, a radiation therapist at MSKCC, says specialty hospitals such as MSKCC are great for radiation therapists. “Here you have so many diverse treatments,” she says. “Straight out of school, it’s a great way to see as many techniques as possible.”
A good example is Intensity Modulated Radiation Therapy (IMRT), she explains. IMRT uses sophisticated computer calculations and other advances to deliver very precise radiation doses. “A lot of places now say, ‘We have IMRT,’ but I learned on that,” says Gencarelli, who holds an associate’s degree and trained at MSKCC for two years before being hired in August 2003.
Beyond technological advances, Larkin is grateful for improvements in medications that control patients’ pain and nausea better.
The ultimate rewards of the job, though, are often intensely personal. “You see the relief in your patients’ eyes when they know you’re there again to take care of them,” Larkin says. “Eleven years of doing this, and I haven’t lost the feeling of satisfaction.”