How to Become a Radiation Therapist
In many occupations, it’s common to wonder if what you do makes a difference in people’s lives. The desire to help others is natural, and it’s never too late to begin or transition to a career path that allows you to change lives every day.
Radiation therapists play a vital role in the fight against cancer and other diseases. Becoming a radiation therapist is also much more straightforward than you might think.
Read on to find out what kind of person could become a radiation therapist, what kind of work you’ll be doing, and how to register for a radiation therapy program.
Radiation therapy is a clinical process used to treat cancer and mitigate its symptoms. Cancer kills almost 10 million people worldwide each year and was responsible for the deaths of almost 600,000 Americans in 2019 alone.
Radiation therapy uses targeted beams, implants, or solutions to target cancerous growths. These shrink or destroy cancerous cells, which can help with:
- Reducing the size of a tumor to a degree that it can be removed surgically without damage to internal organs
- Prevent the spread of cancer to other parts of the body
- Relieve symptoms, if the cancer is advanced and causing the patient significant pain
Below you’ll find the main 3 types of radiation therapy.
External beam therapy uses a targeted beam to critically damage the DNA of cancer cells, impacting their ability to reproduce and survive. It’s the most common type of treatment.
This treatment is used to target cancer sites that would be difficult to treat with an external beam. An implant (often a tube, wire, or capsule) is inserted at the site to attack the tumor, potentially reducing its size and ability to spread.
Systemic therapy is less commonly used but can be very effective at treating the spread of cancer through the body. The patient ingests or is injected with a solution that moves through the bloodstream and destroys cancer cells as it encounters them.
All types of radiation therapy have the potential to harm non-cancerous cells. However, this damage is limited and other cells are typically able to recover. The damage is minimal compared to the harm caused by cancerous growths.
Becoming a radiation therapist places you on the front line of care for cancer patients. You’ll be responsible for assisting with these procedures, operating important equipment, and helping prepare patients for this life-saving treatment.
One of your core responsibilities will be helping patients prepare for treatment. Although radiation therapy is a widespread and well-known treatment for cancer, the term tends to make people nervous due to its associations.
It’s important that patients feel comfortable when receiving treatment and understand how the process will help in the fight against cancer. You’ll make sure that patients are ready to receive radiation treatments and answer any questions they have.
Radiation therapists are often responsible for operating the X-Ray machine during external beam treatments and radiography. Radiography isn’t limited to cancer treatments – radiological technology is used to diagnose broken and fractured bones and to identify a wide range of other internal issues.
You’ll assist the patient with settling into a room where the X-Ray will be performed. You’ll then go into a separate room for radiation protection and operate the machine to generate an X-Ray. The patient will be able to speak to you over an intercom throughout the process.
Radiation therapists must ensure that vital equipment is working properly at all times. There’s no margin for error in this sensitive area of medicine, so you’ll need to know how to test equipment thoroughly, identifying and diagnosing issues and reporting them where necessary.
Many treatments will be performed by a doctor or another specialist. During these advanced treatments, you’ll be responsible for patient care, monitoring whether the patient is comfortable and responding well.
You’ll record the results of all medical imaging and use them in a report on the treatment. This report will be delivered to a physician to analyze – this is a key part of treatment planning. You’ll need strong communication skills and the ability to summarize information concisely and accurately.
How You Can Become a Radiation Therapist
Radiology is a complex and highly technical area of medicine. However, it’s easier to get trained in this field and start a career in radiation therapy than you’d think. Let’s take a look at the typical pathway to starting your career as a radiation therapist.
Requirements vary depending on the type of course you choose and the institution offering the program. However, the basic educational requirements for most radiation therapist programs are:
- A high school diploma or equivalent, such as a GED
- Some evidence of studies in math, biology, chemistry, or physics – whether in high school or via a community college
Some bachelor’s degree programs in this field require students to obtain experience observing clinical treatments in a hospital. You can build this experience by volunteering at a hospital as an observer – the time you’ll need to spend observing depends on the program you’re applying for.
Perhaps the most important choice is deciding whether you want to take a bachelor’s degree or an associate’s degree. This depends on:
- How much time do you plan to spend studying before starting work?
- Do you have the financial resources for a bachelor’s degree?
- Do you want to specialize in a certain area of radiology?
- What additional education may you require?
Many radiation oncologists take a bachelor’s degree program. This will provide a more comprehensive education in radiologic technology and may prepare you for a specialization.
However, the cost and duration of a bachelor’s degree in radiation therapy (four years on average) can be prohibitive to some applicants, especially those who already have work and wish to change careers.
An associate’s degree is a popular type of educational program that will prepare you for work as an entry-level radiation therapist. This is a popular choice because it’s more affordable and accessible and typically lasts for two years.
Remember that you can always return to continue your studies on further radiation therapy programs later if you wish to specialize or take your career further.
Many colleges and universities offer degree programs in this field or a closely related subject. The most important thing when choosing a college is ascertaining that their education program is recognized by the Joint Review Committee on Education in Radiologic Technology (JRCERT).
This body determines whether education programs offer the academic and practical skills required to work in a professional environment. Never sign up for a program that isn’t recognized by JRCERT, as you’ll need to take additional studies before you can start your career.
It’s also important to ensure that your program is recognized by the American Registry of Radiologic Technologists (ARRT). The ARRT certification exam is the final step you must complete before you become a professional, and ARRT may not allow you to take the exam if it doesn’t recognize your education background.
You’ll need to spend a lot of time developing clinical skills on any good program. You should choose a nearby college for this reason, whether it’s a bachelor’s or associate degree. Make sure you have the time for the course requirements. If not, find out if you may obtain certification by studying part-time.
During and after your program, you may need to undertake additional practical training before you can start full-time work as a radiation therapist. This will likely involve working in a nearby hospital, assisting with patient care and observing radiation treatments.
You’ll be closely supervised during this process, but it’ll give you a chance to put the clinical concepts you learned during your education into practice.
The final step before you start this career path is obtaining ARRT certification. You’ll study for the American Registry of Radiologic Technologists certificate program and exam that allows you to work as a radiation therapist. You might also need to obtain licensure in your state – requirements vary by state, but certification from ARRT is mandatory anywhere.
The first role in your career may depend on the type of degree program you took. Radiation therapists with a bachelor’s degree may typically take on a more involved position as their first job. If you studied for an associate degree, you might be required to demonstrate clinical competency by assisting senior radiation therapists before taking on more responsibilities.
Radiation therapists work in a high-pressure environment. All novice radiation therapists must show that their educational programs have equipped them with strong communication skills and technical knowledge before they can treat patients, regardless of where they studied.
Obtaining additional certification is common for radiation therapists. This allows you take on more responsibilities, access a higher pay grade, and specialize in areas of radiation oncology that you’re most interested in.
You must also renew your certification from the American Registry of Radiologic Technologists (ARRT) every 2 years as part of its continuing education program. You must renew your CQR (continuing qualification requirements) with ARRT every 10 years.
Associate degree programs typically last for two years – you can enter many of these after graduating high school. You’ll probably spend another year learning alongside an oncology team before you become a fully-fledge radiation therapist.
Bachelor’s programs take 4-5 years, but may provide you with the chance to start your career without needing to spend an extra year observing and assisting. You might also be able to specialize in a certain area of radiology and oncology by taking a full bachelor’s degree.
Radiation therapists are trained experts in a complex field. You’ll need to demonstrate good math skills and study areas like anatomy and physiology physics. Administering radiation requires careful measurements and experience using specialized equipment.
So what training do you need to become a radiation therapist, and who is this career path right for?
The American Registry of Radiologic Technologists asssess candidates on 3 key areas: education, ethics, and examination. Professional skills you’ll need to pass the assessment may include areas like:
- Theoretical knowledge of medical imaging
- Measuring the amount of radiation treatment a patient requries
- Understanding of radiation protection measures
- Ability to interpret and follow treatment plans
- Knowledge of how to speak to patients and explain procedures
- Understanding of specialist equipment
Radiation therapists must complete all 3 areas to become ARRT-certified.
This career is accessible to anyone who:
- Is good at communicating
- Has a detail-oriented approach to their work
- Has an analytical mind
- Shows a willingness to study and continue learning
- Is able to complete and maintain detailed records
- Is compassionate and wants to help people
- Would like to start a career in a medical field
There’s no “ideal” radiation therapist. If you know how to compassionately treat patients who need a radiation treatment, you understand your clinical role and responsibilities, and you can report results accurately and concisely, you stand a great chance of succeeding in this career path.
Enrolling on a radiation therapy program is a big commitment. Even 2 years of study is a significant investment of time. So is it worth it? Let’s look at the figures.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that median salary for radiation therapists is $86,850 per year. This is significantly higher than the national average and is a great reason to consider a career as a radiation therapist.
In addition, the demand for radiation therapists is projected to grow at 9% per year from 2020-2030. This is around the same rate as the national average, although radiology is a constantly evolving field and new developments might further increase demand.
There are no up-to-date and authoritative statistics or reviews for job satisfaction among radiation therapists. However, sites like payscale.com and indeed.com report generally high levels of satisfaction.
Importantly, it’s a role where:
- You’re able to make a difference in people’s lives every day
- You receive an excellent rate of pay
- You’re part of an exciting, constantly developing field of medicine
- You have great opportunities for specialization and career progression
It’s not an easy job – radiation therapists must make sure they’re giving 100%, all the time. However, this is much easier when you know that your role is changing lives.
Becoming a radiation therapist requires dedication and hard work. It also requires passion and an enthusiasm for helping patients. If you think you’d enjoy putting your skills and personality to use helping people who need care, training as a radiation therapist might be just the career change you need.
Start your new career today by searching for radiation therapy programs today.