How to become a therapeutic radiographer: Shaira's story

Meet Shaira, who works for the Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust giving radiotherapy to cancer patients. Part of our Bitesize world of work series.

Back then, a lot of people sort of frowned on BTECs and said you can't get anywhere with them or it'd be harder to get a job with them but, honestly, I'm sitting here looking at myself today and thinking I shouldn't have listened to them... I'm a health professional now!

What is a therapeutic radiographer?

A therapeutic radiographer is someone that uses radiation to kill cancer cells in cancer patients. Our aim is to try to cure the patient or, if that's not possible, to control their symptoms.

What does a typical day in your role involve?

We have quite a large team. In the morning, one of us will come in and start the radiotherapy machine up – it's a machine called the linear accelerator. We then start working with patients from 08:00 onwards. Some people will be on an early shift and some on a late shift. We get patients ready for their treatment, making sure they're in the right clothing and have a full bladder if that's necessary for their type of treatment. We'll do checks, including looking at their ID, and then we'll take them into the radiotherapy room and administer their treatment.

What hours do you work?

We work shifts, with our latest shift finishing at 20:00. We have flexible working – we can work up to 10 hours a day, so we can do four 10-hour days a week, rather than five days a week of shorter shifts. If you need certain shift patterns for childcare or something, they'll always look to accommodate that.

What was your route to getting into this role?

I was always interested in healthcare and sciences. I started studying Biomedical Sciences at uni but I found it wasn't as hands-on as I'd have liked – I wanted to be more practical – so I started looking at other options and moved to a Radiotherapy degree. I qualified in 2018 and then started my role in April 2019.

Did you have practical work experience before getting your job?

A lot of my Radiotherapy course was placement-based, so working in a hospital. The placements give you the chance to get real experience of what the job is like. You have a competencies book to complete to show that you've learnt the skills required for the job. I loved how practical the degree was and it meant you could quickly tell if the job was the right fit for you or not.

Having had the placement in a hospital... I felt so much more confident applying for my first role and I knew what to expect.

Are there any subjects from school that you find useful in your job?

Definitely all the sciences! At school, I did Triple Sciences at GCSE and, although I wasn't always great at it, I always had that real passion to learn more. I didn't do so well in my GCSEs but I didn't let that stop me. I did a BTEC in Applied Science and, much as people seemed to look down on BTECs at the time, that's what's helped me get to where I am now!

What are the opportunities to progress in radiotherapy?

The NHS has different "bands" for different levels of seniority. So, the higher the band, the more responsibility and the higher the salary. In this job, you can progress quickly. I'm a band 5 and I've been here for two years but my manager has already said they think I'm ready to apply for a band 6 role the next time one is advertised. Once you get to band 7 in a radiotherapy team, you can specialise, for example working specifically on a certain type of cancer.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

Seeing a patient finish their treatment successfully. We've got a radiotherapy end of treatment bell that patients get to ring. To see them successfully reach that point just makes all the tough days worth it.

What’s the biggest challenge?

You build a bond and a rapport with the patients and sometimes you find out that the patient is too ill to have treatment anymore, that there's not anything more that we can do for them, and that's really hard.

I try to keep myself busy outside of work to keep my mind occupied so I don't dwell too much on the emotional parts of the job. We also have a lot of support in place at work if we're finding it particulalry tough and need someone to talk to.

What skills and attributes are important to be a therapeutic radiographer?

  • Being up for a challenge
  • Being able to talk to lots of different people (patients, relatives, doctors etc.)
  • Being kind and compassionate.

Before I started the job, I worried I wasn't confident and chatty enough but, as soon as I started, I got into the flow of it and was speaking to everyone!

Shaira's top tips

  • Every day will be different so be prepared to think on your feet to respond to challenges
  • Don't take it too personally if people are a bit abrupt with you – it's an intense environment where emotions can run high at times
  • Get some comfortable shoes! You'll be on your feet a lot so it's all about being comfy, not looking fashionable.

What to expect if you want to be a therapeutic radiographer

  • Therapeutic radiographer average salary: from £25,654 to £45,838 per year (Band 5-Band 7)
  • Therapeutic radiographer typical working hours: 35 to 40 hours per week. You could work evenings, weekends and bank holidays.

What qualifications do you need to be a therapeutic radiographer?

You could get into this role via a university course, a degree apprenticeship or working towards the role. Alternatively, a T-level in Healthcare Science (England-only) may help you.

Sources: LMI for All, National Careers Service, GOV.UK

This information is a guide and is constantly changing. Please check the National Careers Service website and the NHS Health Careers website for the latest information and all the qualifications needed and the GOV.UK website for more on T-levels.

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