A radiation therapist is someone who treats cancer and other diseases in patients by giving radiation treatments. Most radiation therapists work in hospitals or cancer treatment centres.
A radiation therapist is an Allied Health Professional who uses ionising radiation to treat disease, usually cancer. A radiation therapist is also responsible for collecting relevant patient information and using this information to plan a patient's treatment. Sometimes a radiation therapist is called a therapeutic radiographer.
A radiation therapist will work under the guidance of a Radiation Oncologist, in a team of health professionals who care for and treat cancer patients. They are usually assigned to work on a rotating basis in one of three main areas: simulation, planning and treatment.
Simulation involves the gathering of all relevant data to plan and treat the patient. The radiation therapist will read through the patients notes and look at any tests or radiographic scans such as x-rays, CT and MRI the patient may have had, to determine where the tumour is located. When the patient arrives, the radiation therapist will explain the process to the patient and answer any questions. It is important the radiation therapist is empathetic, yet professional as it can be an emotional time for the patient and their family.
The radiation therapist will use a simulator (a machine similar to the treatment machine) or a CT scanner to gather the data that will be used for planning the patient's treatment. The patient lies in the same position they will be treated in. This may involve the use of equipment such as a special thermo-plastic mask, or neck and knee rests to keep the patient as immobile as possible.
The radiation therapist draws marks onto the patient's skin as an external indicator of where the treatment will be directed. After the CT scan or simulation, these marks will be tattooed onto the patient in the form of small permanent dots, the size of a freckle. The radiation therapist will document information such as the patient's position, equipment used, where the tattoo dots are located and any relevant measurements.
Planning, or dosimetry is where the radiation therapist uses the data gathered during simulation to plan the patient's treatment. This is usually done on the computer. The oncologist will indicate where the treatment needs to be delivered and what dose of radiation the patient will receive. The radiation therapist is responsible for deciding the best way to aim the radiation at the cancer with the least effect on normal, or surrounding tissues. The radiation therapist must also work to ensure that sensitive tissues such as the eyes, heart or rectum receive as small a dose as possible, to limit long-term side effects of the treatment. The oncologist will approve the plan before the treatment starts.
When the patient arrives for treatment, the radiation therapist is responsible for ensuring the patient is treated accurately as well as providing them with emotional support. Before a patient's first treatment, the radiation therapist will check through all of the planning information and make sure all relevant equipment is in the treatment room. The radiation therapist will explain the procedure to the patient and answer any questions.
They will align the tattoo dots that were placed during the simulation process with laser lights in the treatment room to ensure the patient is in the same position each day, as accuracy of treatment is very important. The radiation therapist will operate the Linear Accelerator (treatment machine), which can be moved from inside the room, however the radiation dose will only be given once all staff are outside the treatment room.
Radiation therapists are responsible for supporting the patient throughout their treatment. They must have compassion and strong interpersonal skills. Part of their role is to listen to the emotional concerns and anxieties of the patient and refer them appropriately if needed. The radiation therapist will also assess the patient's reaction to treatment, providing advice on the side effects of treatment and methods of alleviating these. Radiation therapists often develop close relationships with their patients, as they usually see them five days per week for between three and seven weeks.
Radiation therapists may hold extra responsibilities such as QA testing of the simulation and treatment machines or checking weekly patient x-rays for treatment accuracy. Radiation therapists may be involved in co-ordinating clinical trials, or specialist groups to develop radiation techniques within their departments. They may attend national and international conferences and study days and will be involved in ongoing education.
Radiation therapists usually work eight hours per day, five days per week. They may be on-call during the weekends to treat emergency cases. There is a good demand for radiation therapists within Australia and New Zealand, as well as overseas.
Many people with cancer will have radiotherapy as part of their cancer treatment. Radiotherapy may be given for different reasons.
This is given with the aim of destroying a tumour and curing the cancer. It is also known as radical treatment.
This is given when it’s not possible to cure a cancer. You may have palliative treatment to control the growth of a tumour or relieve symptoms such as pain or coughing.
There are two ways of giving radiotherapy:
This is also called external radiotherapy. It is given from outside the body.
This is given using a radioactive material placed inside the body.
Which way you have radiotherapy will depend on the type of cancer you have and where it is in the body. Some cancers are treated with both external and internal radiotherapy.
Sometimes chemotherapy is given at the same time as radiotherapy. This is called chemoradiation or chemoradiotherapy. Chemotherapy uses anti-cancer (cytotoxic) drugs to destroy cancer cells. The chemotherapy drugs can make the cancer cells more sensitive to radiotherapy.
Giving chemotherapy and radiotherapy together can make the side effects of treatment worse. Your doctor, radiographer or specialist nurse can give you more information about chemoradiotherapy and the possible side effects of this treatment.
Radiotherapy treatments are planned on an individual basis. This means that even if someone you know or have met has the same type of cancer as you, their radiotherapy treatment may be different.
Radiotherapy can be a frightening experience for both children and their parents. Understanding what's involved can help.
Radiotherapy staff are used to treating children and can offer help and support. A play therapist will often be available as well to provide support.
Side effects may affect you no matter which area of the body you’re having radiotherapy to. It's important to remember that most people will have a few side effects and they will often be mild. Most people only experience a few of the following:
There are ways to help you manage side effects so they're easier to cope with. If you need help and advice about dealing with any, speak to your doctor or radiotherapy staff. Most side effects last for about 10–15 days after treatment finishes.
Some people have side effects that last for longer, or develop some time after they have finished their treatment. These are called long-term or late effects.
Before you have radiotherapy, your clinical oncologist will talk to you about any likely side effects. You can ask the oncologist about any you’re particularly worried about.