A radiation therapist uses the process of ionizing radiation to treat cancer patients. Radiation therapists are also known as therapeutic radiographers or radiotherapists. They sometimes are incorrectly called radiation technicians or radiation therapy technicians. These terms are limited to the technician that actually operates the radiation machines. While radiation therapists may operate radiation equipment, they also interpret radiation prescriptions, develop radiation therapy treatment plans and then implement them for cancer patients.
A radiation therapist is an allied health professional. Unlike doctors, these health careers don’t require a medical degree. Still, allied health care careers are an integral part of any well functioning healthcare system. Kinesiotherapists, midwives and optometrists are all considered allied health care professionals. Other fields include medical physics, social work and rehabilitation counseling.
The requirements to become a radiation therapist differ from country to country. In the United States, a student must first complete high school or must obtain a general education development (GED) credential. In most cases, the student will then complete two years of technical school and receive a radiation therapist certificate. There are also some programs that offer an Associate Degree or Bachelor of Science degree. The certification or degree depends on the program and institution.
After receiving the certification, the therapist must then pass a state board exam to be licensed to practice. The exam tests the student’s knowledge of human anatomy, radiation physics and the psychology of cancer. Therapists must also know how to operate and troubleshoot the radiation equipment, even though a technician may be the one doing the actual operation of that equipment.
Patients generally start radiation therapy after being prescribed by their radiation oncologist, a medical doctor that specializes in the treatment of cancer using radiation. The therapist then plans the patient’s course of treatment with the help of a radiation physicist, who is specially trained to measure and administer radioactive materials. Treatment can up to last several weeks and during this time, the therapist observes and adjusts the course of treatment based on the patient’s reaction.
There are several specialties of practice available to a radiation therapist. Brachytherapy is a form of radiotherapy that involves actually inserting the radioactive source inside the patient near the cancer site. Brachytherapy is generally used for treatment on localized types of cancer, including cervical and prostate cancer. Another option is radiosurgery, a noninvasive surgery alternative that uses beams of ionizing radiation.