Radiation therapy is a specialized field of medicine that uses high-energy radiation to target specific cells in the body with cancer, tumors, or other diseases. A radiation therapist, also known as a radiologic technologist, is a medical professional who administers radiation therapy treatments and makes sure they are given safely and accurately.
Radiation therapists work closely with oncologists, surgeons, and other medical professionals to properly coordinate patient treatments. This specialty requires strong technical skills, knowledge of physics and mathematics, as well as excellent communication skills. Radiation therapists must also be able to provide emotional support for their patients since they are dealing with life-changing illnesses.
This article will dive into everything you need to know about how to become a radiation therapist, as well as what they do, how much they earn, and more.
Radiation therapists work with oncologists and other healthcare providers to ensure that radiation treatments are administered safely and effectively. Radiation therapists oversee the entire process, from planning and administering treatment to monitoring patient progress.
Radiation therapy is an essential tool for fighting cancer, so radiation therapists play a vital role in ensuring treatment works as effectively as possible. Their careful attention to detail ensures that each patient receives the best possible care.
Some radiation therapist tasks include:
- Plan and administer radiation treatments
- Determine the location of tumors to ensure the correct positioning of patients for treatment administration
- Celebrate and operate radiation equipment
- Monitor patient progress
- Educate patients on what to expect during radiation therapy
- Provide emotional support for patients undergoing treatment
- Follow safety procedures to ensure patient safety
- Monitor equipment and make sure it is properly maintained
- Document all treatment plans, treatments, and patient progress
- Stay up to date with advances in radiation therapy technology
- Work collaboratively with other healthcare providers
- Follow safety protocols to protect patients and staff from radiation exposure
Unique qualities needed to work as a radiation therapist include:
- An understanding of human anatomy
- Thorough knowledge of radiation therapy equipment and techniques
- Good communication and interpersonal skills
- Excellent problem-solving abilities
- Great attention to detail
Radiation Therapist Scope of Practice
Radiation therapists are responsible for providing the safe and effective delivery of radiation treatments to patients. The primary scope of practice includes operating complex equipment to generate high-energy X-rays or other types of radiation used in cancer treatments.
The types of equipment radiation technologists work with can vary depending on the facility, but these typically include linear accelerators, gamma knives, and brachytherapy machines.
Linear accelerators: produce high-energy beams of radiation that target the tumor and destroy cancer cells
Gamma knife technology (with a cobalt-60 machine): to deliver targeted doses of radiation
Brachytherapy: involves placing radioactive materials directly inside the body near the tumor
Each machine works differently, so radiation therapists need the proper training. Additionally, radiation therapists must monitor and adjust the dose levels as required throughout treatment to ensure the accuracy and safety of the patient.
With proper training and experience, radiation therapists can specialize in certain areas, such as pediatric oncology or brachytherapy (using internal radiation sources).
Radiation Therapist Work Environment
Radiation therapists typically work between 30 and 40 hours per week if working full-time. This typically breaks down to five 8-hour shifts per week.
Depending on the facility and type of practice, these shifts could include days, nights, and weekends. It is essential to understand that you may have to work hours outside of the standard 9 to 5 pm schedule as a radiation therapist. You may also be required to participate in additional training or educational events outside of “normal” working hours.
Radiation therapists work in a variety of locations, including:
- Medical centers
- Cancer treatment facilities
- Physician offices
- Radiology clinics
- Radiation therapy centers
Depending on the type of treatment setting, radiation therapists typically work in teams with a variety of other healthcare professionals, including:
- Radiation oncologists: physicians who specialize in treating cancer with radiation
- Dosimetrists: healthcare professionals who plan a patient’s dose of radiation to ensure it is as accurate and safe as possible
- Oncology nurses
Step 1: Get a High School Diploma or GED
To apply for a radiology therapist program, you must have a minimum of a high school diploma or GED equivalent.
Depending on the specific program and school you choose, you may also have other prerequisites, including:
- Completion of biology, chemistry, physics, and math courses (at least high school level)
- Proof of CPR certification
- Personal statement/essay summarizing your educational goals and interest in radiation therapy
- Letters of recommendation from teachers and other professionals
- Some schools require a minimum GPA for admission
Step 2: Earn Your Degree
To become a radiation therapist, you will need to earn an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in radiation therapy from an accredited school.
An Associate of Science in Radiation Therapy (ASRT) is the most common degree for radiation therapists. This degree typically takes two years to complete
A Bachelor of Science (B.S.) in Radiation Therapy is an undergraduate pathway for students wanting to earn a higher-level degree. A B.S. in Radiation Therapy typically takes four years to complete and requires higher-level medical science courses.
Step 3: Earn ARRT Certification
After completing your program, you should be eligible to take the American Registry of Radiologic Technologists (ARRT) certification exam to become a certified radiation therapist.
Step 4: State Licensure
Once you have passed the exam and received ARRT certification, most states require professional licensure before allowing you to practice as a radiation therapist. Earning state licensure differs from ARRT certification.
Radiology therapists must meet their individual state’s requirements and apply directly to the state where they will work to earn licensure. Check with your state’s licensing board for specific details.
Step 5: Continuing Education
After obtaining licensure, radiation therapists must keep up with continuing education requirements as their state requires.
Most states require continuing education and/or recertification every few years to maintain licensure as a radiation therapist. Check with your state for more information about specific licensure requirements.
Typically, a person interested in becoming a radiation therapist will first earn an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in radiologic technology, which usually takes two to four years, depending on the program chosen.
After earning their degree, they can take the American Registry of Radiologic Technologists (ARRT) examination to become certified and apply for licensure if it is required in their state.
The average radiation therapist’s salary is $82,790 annually or $39.80 per hour as of May 2021, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
Radiation therapy salaries are largely determined by the state and facility where you work. For example, those working in large metropolitan cities will likely earn a higher salary based on the increased cost of living compared to those working in a small rural town.
Additional benefits for radiation therapists may include:
- Health insurance
- Vision and dental insurance
- Vacation and sick days
- Retirement plans
- Tuition reimbursement for continuing education classes
Highest-Paying States for Radiation Therapists
According to ZipRecruiter, the highest-paying states for radiation therapists include:
New York – $105,629 annually
New Hampshire – $98,175 annually
Vermont – $96,817 annually
Maine – $95,902 annually
Hawaii – $93,115 annually
Highest-Paying Cities for Radiation Therapists
According to ZipRecruiter, the highest-paying cities for radiation therapists include:
San Francisco, CA – $113,433 annually
Bolinas, CA – $112,836 annually
Fremont, CA – $110,711 annually
San Jose, CA – $106,957 annually
Oakland, CA – $106,167 annually
Radiation Therapist Salary by Years of Experience
Years of experience as a radiation therapist will play a significant role in your annual earnings. According to Salary.com, as of 2023, radiation therapists earn a median salary from $73,188 (bottom 10%) to $110,442 or more (top 10%) annually.
How much you earn depends largely on your years of experience in the field. In other words, the more experienced you become, the pay raises you will get to compensate for your professional expertise.
According to Payscale as of 2023, radiation therapists earn the following,
Less than 1 years of experience earn an average hourly salary of $31.13
1-4 years of experience earn an average hourly salary of $32.82
5-9 years of experience earns an average hourly salary of $35.83
10-19 years of experience earns an average hourly salary of $41.37
20+ years of experience earns an average hourly salary of $44.27
According to the BLS, radiation therapy employment is projected to grow by 6% from 2021 to 2031, which is about average for most careers.
The BLS adds that each year about 800 new openings will be available throughout the decade. Many openings will result from those leaving the profession through retirement or who exit the workforce.
The American Registry of Radiologic Technologists (ARRT) is the major certifying organization for radiation therapists.
As a radiation therapist, you’ll usually need to complete and document a set amount of continuing education (CE) activities every two years. Most radiation therapists must earn 24 approved CE credits during this time; however, this depends on your state’s requirements.
For example, state requirements for a radiation therapist in Florida include 12 hours of CEUs and an HIV/AIDS educational course. Washington has no continuing education requirements. However, radiation therapists in Washington must still renew their licenses every two years.