Right place at the right time: A day in the life of a radiotherapist

The life of a radiotherapist can be challenging, emotionally demanding, rewarding and all-consuming – often all at the same time. Radiotherapy area manager for the Southern Peninsula region at Equra Health, Robyn Stewart, tells ICON about a day in her life. 

Having spent over two decades as a radiotherapist, Robyn Stewart is an expert in her field. She is also the first to acknowledge that being a radiotherapist requires one to be a little bit of everything – from strategist to councillor. While on some hard-earned leave, Stewart was happy to switch back into work-mode and take the time to tell us all about it.

What exactly do you do as a radiotherapist and where did you study?

I completed my national diploma in radiotherapy at the Cape Peninsula Technikon in 1995, so that makes this my 21st year in the industry. We assist patients who have been diagnosed with cancer, as well as those undergoing treatment with radiation. Checking prescriptions given by the Oncologist, tracking treatments, advising patients on what to expect, and monitoring treatment side effects are all part of the work that we do.

What is an average day like for you?

A day to day for me is planning and treating patients with cancer and in some instances, certain benign conditions that are either on the linear accelerator or in the brachytherapy unit, depending on the treatment that they are receiving. We have two Linear Accelerator units, each with the capacity to see up to 50 patients per day but we average about 30 per unit. There are tight rules that we need to follow and there are a lot of quality assurance and control checks that need to take place as part of the job. On a daily basis I liaise with the doctors on the best possible treatments and ensure correct treatment delivery. Additionally, I advise doctors and radiographers on what can be delivered in a practical sense and input on the energy of the treatments and performance status of the units.

Finally, I also need to make sure that our standard operating procedures are current and adhered to. So I need to be in touch with all the different departments in oncology because we need to work as one unit.

On a personal level, what is your interaction with patients like, and can your work be emotionally demanding?

We do a lot of counselling for patients but one needs to maintain quite a fine emotional balance as well. We usually see patients for quite long periods of time and we do form bonds with them. I cannot stress how much empathy you need to have as a radiotherapist. It is very difficult to see patients in pain, especially when we see children going through treatment. I don’t think there is anyone who can say that the emotional aspect of this job is easy.

A radiotherapist needs to be able to walk that line between having true empathy and dedication to every single patient while having the ability to detach emotionally. Another thing that makes it difficult at times, is that we are expected to keep our patient interactions confidential, while still having to deal with our own emotions. So we cannot really talk to anyone outside our unit to help us deal emotionally with what we are experiencing at times. That is why we place a lot of importance on being able to counsel each other within the group and debrief team members.

Would you say that there is a need for new attitudes or major changes in the oncology sector?

We have so many world-class professionals in this country and we are streets ahead of the rest of Africa right now. South Africa is in fact a major training ground for the rest of Africa. But I think that we must not lose sight of the fact that there is always work that needs to be done. I certainly don’t think that anyone in the oncology sector can claim to have the best model, if we haven’t re-evaluated it. I believe it is also important to get honest feedback from our clients, patients, colleagues and staff so that we can always be evolving, working efficiently and moving forward.

A big issue that I see, especially in the public sector right now, is how long waiting lists can be. All the principles of human rights are in place, yet patients can wait for months for their treatment. That tells me something is not right, and that some part of the cycle is failing at the moment. It is important for us to use the resources at our disposal, and to make an impact on the types of treatment available. It is our duty to always strive to be better and achieve more.