What is a Radiation Therapist?

Radiation therapy uses radiation to treat disease. Most patients receiving radiation therapy are cancer patients. It’s a highly skilled profession and, because cancer affects so many people, qualified radiation therapists are in demand. You’ll work as part of a specialised team, under the supervision of a radiation oncologist – a specialist doctor who studies and treats tumours. As a radiation therapist, you are the person within the team who plans a patient’s radiation treatment using computer technology and clinical information. You are also the person who gives the patient their radiation therapy using a range of high-tech treatment machines.

Within New Zealand there are many career opportunities for a radiation therapist. Radiation Oncology departments in New Zealand are at six public hospitals (Auckland, Waikato, Palmerston North, Wellington, Christchurch, and Dunedin), and three private centres (Auckland, Tauranga, and Christchurch).

As a qualified radiation therapist you may have the opportunity to specialise in the area of treatment delivery, planning, research and development or clinical education.

Radiation Therapy is an international profession and there are many opportunities to travel because New Zealand radiation therapists are extremely well regarded overseas for their high level of skills and broad knowledge.

Radiation Therapy can be given in two ways – from outside the body, called external beam radiation. External radiation is the most common method. This is where a radiation beam is focused from a machine outside your body onto the area affected. This can be delivered on two types of machines. This most common machine used for external radiation is the picture on the far left, called a Linear Accelerator. The right image shows a Superficial x-ray machine which is smaller and used often to treat closer to the skin surface.

linear accelaerator
superficial machine

Brachytherapy/ HDR Machine

Another method of delivering radiation therapy is internal radiation treatment or Brachytherapy. With internal radiation therapy, a radioactive material is put into your body, on or near the target area.  This is delivered using a brachytherapy or HDR machine pictured on the right. Sometimes a combination of both external and internal radiation therapy is used.


How does it work? The entire body is made up of cells with different functions. Radiation Therapy works by affecting the cells DNA. The radiation affects the bonds holding the cell together. Healthy cells in the treatment area are affected but have the ability to repair themselves and continue their function but abnormal cells (such as cancer cells) are unable to repair and during the course of treatment are destroyed.

Chest CT example

chest CT example

This is a three-dimensional view of a chest CT scan and this is what staff can see when we are planning treatment. The CT scan can be viewed in several different ways so staff can see all the information necessary to plan the treatment. If you imagine your body to be a loaf of bread, with our planning system staff can look through your loaf of bread body and pick out a slice to view. In the TOP LEFT corner you are looking at the loaf as if you were sliced horizontally. The BOTTOM LEFT corner shows the loaf of bread being sliced vertically from the side and the BOTTOM RIGHT corner shows the loaf of bread as if it was sliced vertically from the middle. The red outline indicates the target area which is drawn on by the Oncologist. You can also see the surrounding organs and normal tissue such as the healthy lungs, heart, ribs, spine and spinal cord. As you can see with the scan data staff have the information necessary to plan the treatment and can clearly indicated the target area and surrounding organs so a suitable plan can be created.

Prostate Plan Example

Prostate plan example

This is an example of a plan created for the treatment of prostate cancer viewing the CT scan as if the loaf of bread was sliced horizontally. The central red volume is the target- the prostate gland and the important surrounding structures such as the bladder, rectum and hip bones have been outlined.  There are many coloured lines overlaid on to the CT scan which indicate varying amounts of dose. During the planning process the aim is to surround the target with this blue line which indicates the high dose area. As you can see the blue line and high dose area fits closely around the target area. The remaining lines indicate lower doses and as you can see the further away from the target the lower the dose to other tissue is. We cannot completely avoid surrounding structures which is why some side effects are experienced during treatment; however, we keep this dose as low as possible. This plan was achieved by moving the machine to various different angles and using several treatment beams, one from either side, two angled and one directly in front.

Read the APEX Position Paper on the Development of RT Satellite Sites
Read an introduction from APEX RT President Tania Ferguson and Secretary Karen Else

Radiation Therapists - Delegates:

Name Location Employer
Brett Taylor Auckland Auckland
Eden Simpson Auckland Auckland
Carolyn Gunn Christchurch Canterbury
Chrissy Luke Palmerston North Midcentral
Nadia Smith Dunedin Southern
Karen Else Waikato Waikato
Greta Lewis Christchurch Canterbury
Melissa Martel Auckland Auckland
Tania Ferguson Auckland Auckland
Christie Binks Auckland Auckland

Contact APEX