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The Toronto Sun CareerConnection

HEALTH CONNECTION

Radiation therapists critical to cancer treatment

By Susan Poizner
Special to The Toronto Sun


Anne Wighton is warm, sincere, and blessed with an enchanting accent. Born in Scotland, the 40-year-old radiation therapist at the Sunnybrook Cancer Centre is also a long way from the country of her birth. Anne's career has allowed her to live and work in Singapore, Holland, Germany and finally Canada.
Radiation therapist Ann Wighton, centre, says the best part of the job is interacting with patients and helping to alleviate their pain.


"I first came to Canada on holiday when I was 18," Wighton says. "I remember going to the (Ontario) Science Centre and seeing one of the original radiation machines. It was a cobalt machine that was invented and produced in Canada and sent all over the world. That was the first radiation machine I had ever seen. And now I work with them every day."

Cancer is primarily a disease of the elderly: For its 2002 report, The Canadian Cancer Society estimated that in 2002, about 70% of new cases and 80% of cancer deaths would occur in people older than 60. Our rapidly aging population has resulted in increasing incidences of cancer, and a growing need for radiation therapists.

"It's a very mobile profession," says Nicole Harnett, dean of diagnostic imaging and therapy at the Michener Institute for Applied Health Sciences in Toronto. "All of our final year students last year had jobs before they graduated. Some went to the (United) States or Europe."

There are plenty of jobs at home, too, particularly now that plans are in the works to open at least three new cancer centres in Ontario.

This type of treatment uses radiation to destroy cancer cells in the body. The therapist's job is to decide what doses are necessary, and how they need to be distributed. Therapists also work closely with patients, explaining how their treatment will work, positioning them and operating the radiation machines.
Working as a radiation therapist
Salary: $45,000 to $65,000 per year

Education: One year of university level education with a B average, including four mandatory courses (math, physics, biology and chemistry).

Characteristics: An aptitude for technology, people skills, and a good team worker.

Cons: It's highly detailed work and can be stressful.

Pros: It's a nine-to five-job, five days a week. It's rewarding if you enjoy helping people.

More information: Visit www.michener.ca


The Michener Institute is the only school in Ontario that trains radiation therapists. They accept 75 new students a year out of more than 225 applications. All candidates must have already completed one year at university with a "B" average, and must have passed courses in math, chemistry, biology and physics.

While Wighton enjoys the technical side of her work, her favourite part of the job is interacting with the patients.

"You meet people from every walk of life," she says. "For them, it's a very difficult time. You need a certain empathy. It's rewarding because there's no superficiality about it. You're helping people to get better or to alleviate their pain."

For some, however, working with radiation may seem dangerous, even though therapists are out of the room when the treatment is taking place. On a day-to-day basis, they are exposed to just a tiny amount of radiation. The work would be risky, however, if there was an accident. Nicole Harnett compares it to being an airline pilot.

"The working environment is safe," she says. "But if something goes wrong, the fallout can be severe. I have never heard of any cases like that happening. We do what we can to prevent that from happening by focusing so strongly on safety in our course."

(Susan Poizner (susan.poizner@sympatico.ca) is a Toronto-based freelance writer.)



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