A career as a radiation therapist puts you in the heart of the battle against cancer, but doesn’t require a medical degree. Radiation therapists are part of a cancer team, known as an oncology team, which helps diagnose and treat cancer. With specific training that doesn’t require many years of college, you can make more money in this field than many people earn in corporate America.
Radiation therapists, or RTs, work under the supervision of a doctor or radiologist and give patients targeted doses of radiation when this is required as part of their treatment. These treatments aim to shrink or eliminate cancerous cells without damaging healthy cells. In some cases, they treat non-cancerous growths that might cause problems. RTs meet with patients to discuss their radiation treatment, use specialized equipment to administer the radiation, examine patients afterwards to monitor reactions, and fill out reports for medical staff to use in follow-up work. RTs are responsible for examining the machines they use to ensure they function properly.
Because RTs work around radioactive materials, they take great care to follow procedures that protect themselves from overexposure to radiation. This includes operating the equipment from a room next door to the patient’s room, with treatments taking approximately 30 minutes. RTs work in health care facilities such as hospitals, clinics and cancer treatment centers. Unlike other healthcare careers, RTs usually have stable daytime hours.
You’ll need to be comfortable working with people in difficult emotional situations and be able to show empathy and compassion, says Dr. Marguerite Degenhardt, pre-professional health program coordinator at North Central College. "You're working with patients who may be going through a very difficult time in their lives and you can be a tremendous support to them. You have to be very honest and sincere so you can gain the complete trust of patients and their families.”
Education and training
Training in radiation therapy can take as little as one year and require at least an associate’s degree that includes classes with a heavy emphasis on science, says Degenhardt. You should be able to pass classes in biology, anatomy, physiology, chemistry and physics, as well as in medical terminology, psychology and math. The College of DuPage offers a one-year certificate program in radiation therapy for people who have completed an associate’s degree in a related field of study, while North Central offers a bachelor’s, providing more hands-on training. When you evaluate degree options, look for an accredited radiation therapy program to increase your chances of passing the national certification exam that will lead to obtaining your state license, which is required in Illinois.
"Radiation therapists are important members of the health care team,” says Degenhardt. “You're working with highly educated people such as physicians and physicists as you're preparing to administer treatment to patients. You're always learning because new and improved radiation therapy techniques are continuously coming out. You have to have a willingness to learn new things. Teamwork is also a very important component of the work because you work with people who come from diverse backgrounds.”
With life expectancies for Americans rising, the demand for RTs is expected to grow at a 20 percent clip through 2020, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Median pay for these positions nationally was approximately $75,000 in 2010. The average radiation therapist job advertised in Chicago on the job website Indeed.com paid $84,000 as of October 2013. While entry-level salaries for RTs are attractive, those at the higher end of the earning spectrum probably have several or more years of experience, says Degenhardt. Advancement opportunities, especially for those with a bachelor’s degree, include moving into management, sales, research and teaching.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun