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Who’s who: Radiation oncologist

Who's who: Radiation Oncologist
One of the key people you will meet when you are first referred to radiation therapy is the radiation oncologist. We are now going to meet Dr. Sandra Turner, who is a consultant radiation oncologist from Australia. She has over 20 years of experience in this role, and will discuss how she takes care of cancer patients being treated with radiation therapy. She will explain how she works with lots of other health care professionals to design and plan a treatment for each patient she meets. She oversees all aspects of a patient’s care during and after treatment. So my name’s Sandra Turner, and I’m a radiation oncologist in Sydney, Australia. Why did I become a radiation oncologist?
It’s because I had some experience with seeing radiation oncology patients or cancer patients when I was a junior doctor. And I was really surprised by this interesting area of therapy. What is the role of the radiation oncologist?
So the radiation oncologist is one part of the whole radiation oncology professional team. And they’re the medical part of it, so they’re the doctor whose role mainly is to assess the patient and decide whether radiation therapy would or wouldn’t be an effective part of their treatment. And that involves finding the information out about that patient, their cancer, lots of information about the individual and also the stage of the cancer– what type it is, to be able to make a recommendation for them. The other thing that the radiation oncologist does, is with the other members of the team, is to support the patient through their path of having planning for radiation therapy, and then actually having the radiation therapy delivered.
And the radiation oncologists are also involved with the follow-up care often of that patient, and also supporting the family members, deciding how often we need to see the patient afterwards. And if they have any more problems from their cancer, looking after that as well. Tell us about the expert team of professionals in radiation therapy.
So radiation therapy is delivered by expert teams, and one of those roles, which is mine as the radiation oncologist, is the medical part. The radiation therapist– they’re called different things in different countries, but usually radiation therapist or radiation therapy technologist or RTTs, are another key part of the treatment delivery and care team. And then the other two professionals that are involved are the medical physicist, who have another important function in helping design the radiation programme for the patient, and also looking after the very complex equipment and making sure that it’s doing what it is meant to do in treating the patient. There are also cancer oncology nurses who are part of the care team as well.
So it’s a very, very team-based treatment that delivers the radiation therapy to patients. How do doctors decide if a cancer patient needs radiation therapy as part of their management?
As doctors, we have to make decisions about what treatments are suitable for patients, and as radiation oncologists in particular, we are looking at the clinical trials that have been done in the area that have come up with the types of patients particularly that benefit from radiation– actually that’s most cancers across the spectrum. But in a particular patient, we use the knowledge that we have from the medical literature and in the most clinical trials. We use our own experience and judgement, but particularly we use all of the features that are known about that cancer and that particular individual patient to weigh up the pros and cons whether radiation therapy might be beneficial to them.
And that depends really on the cancer, on the stage of the cancer. So if we’re trying to give the cancer treatment that might cure that patient, if we’re trying to give treatment that might improve quality of life or will help pain, there is a different set of decisions we make. But basically it’s built up with scientific knowledge and our experience of who will and won’t benefit from treatment. Is radiation therapy an effective treatment in the management of cancer?
So radiation therapy is a very effective form of treatment. In fact, it’s been worked out that probably about 40% of cancer cures have radiation therapy as part of the treatment. Now, that might be on its own, or it might with surgery, or might be with chemotherapy drug treatment. So we often see a combination of the treatments, and radiation isn’t the only treatment given to patients. But in terms of its affect, one in two cancer patients are being found, based on the evidence, to potentially benefit from radiation therapy. So it’s a very important part of cancer treatment.
And in the setting where people have pain from cancer that’s spread into bones or other parts of the body, or they’re having other problems where the cancer is causing symptoms but the patient isn’t necessarily going to be cured, radiation is also a very effective method of alleviating pain, of stopping bleeding or other symptoms that can impair the quality of life of patients. What is the most rewarding aspect of being a radiation oncologist?
I think one of the most rewarding things about being a radiation oncologist is that you get the privilege to get quite close to patients that have a serious illness. Nearly all our patients have cancer, and their families, and they put great trust in you to help them. And that’s an amazing privilege. The other really rewarding things are that you actually have at your disposal a therapy which is really effective. So it’s by far the more common thing that you can actually help that person with the treatment that you’re offering them.
And the other really rewarding thing is that it’s such a team-based job– that you work with a whole team of different types of experts and people with different skills, that really will have that common goal, which is about trying to look after the patient. And there’s no job that’s as exciting as that.

In the next three steps, we will be meeting some of the key healthcare professionals involved in radiation therapy treatment; a radiation oncologist (Sandra Turner), a radiation therapist (RTT) (Martijn Kamphuis), and a radiation therapy nurse (Sheelagh Ryan). We will be asking them about their job, and how they work with patients and other members of the radiation therapy team.

One of the first people you will meet, if you have radiation therapy treatment, is a radiation oncologist. In this video, we hear from Sandra Turner, a radiation oncologist from Australia with over 20 years experience.

What does a radiation oncologist do?

Radiation oncologists like Sandra work with the multidisciplinary team to:

  • Assess whether radiation therapy is appropriate for a patient
  • Support patients and their families throughout radiation therapy planning and treatment
  • Follow up with patients after treatment
  • Give advice on any side effects
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An Introduction to Radiation Oncology: From Diagnosis to Survivorship

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