For GPs

Being At The Sharp End Of Radiation Therapy

21 Dec 2017

Wendy Sharp has had an incredibly diverse and rewarding role as a radiation therapist for more than 40 years. Working across the role, she has seen at first hand the valuable role that radiation therapy and professionals play in modern healthcare. She currently works in the radiation therapy department of the Crown Princess Mary Cancer Centre at Sydney’s Westmead Hospital. Here she shares with Targeting Cancer her experiences of the job, working with patients and healthcare practices:

Wendy Sharp has had a wonderfully diverse career as a radiation therapist.

My name is Wendy Sharp and I am a radiation therapist. I can’t imagine being in any other job to be honest!

The most common thing I hear when people ask me what I do is, “Oh, that must be so sad and depressing.” For the forty years I have been in this job I have been trying to get the answer right, but there is no ‘right’ answer. Dealing with cancer patients is not always easy. It can be hard, but it can also be very rewarding. We treat them every day. They get to know us and we get to know them. We are often their first point of contact in the Radiotherapy department.

I would like to use this blog as an opportunity to explain what radiation therapy is and provide reassurance to patients and their family members. It is also a good opportunity to correct some of the stories people may have heard about treatment. Working with other health professionals, we ensure that patients here in Australia have access to the best treatment and support available.

I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do when I was in my last year of school in Scotland in the early 1970s. I think it was more good luck than anything else which brought me into this profession. I remember a moment during my first few months of training with great clarity! We had a very sick patient who needed urgent treatment. She had been brought into Emergency that morning. Within moments of her arriving, we were like a well-oiled machine jumping into action. Everyone knew their role! Someone stayed with the patient explaining and reassuring. Others organised treatment and planning schedules. Everyone understood their role in team work. I loved it, especially the patient care aspect which to this day is very much my passion and interest. There was no doubt in my mind that this career had indeed found me!

A wonderful memory of my training days in Glasgow was of an ‘old school’ style radiation oncologist. She would slip her wedding band off her finger and mark the centre of the treatment area on a patient’s abdomen. She would attach some tape over the ring and stick this onto the patient with the request they pop over to the X-ray department and get an X-ray to confirm she was in the right spot with her ring as reference. She would have done this hundreds of times and never lost her ring! She was always spot on with her reference skin marks too!

Wendy works as a radiation therapist at Sydney’s Westmead Hospital.

In the early 1980s I worked in Saudi Arabia. I loved the challenge of being involved in setting up a department there with my colleagues. This was an interesting time for me to see and learn that in different parts of the world different cancers are predominant. Although our department was part of a large western style hospital in Riyadh with generous budgets and up to date equipment, logistics were often our main problem. Walk into our department and you could have been anywhere in the UK or North America. The main problem was most of our potential patients lived in the desert and not in the cities. Getting transport to us was not always easy or convenient. If they managed the trip to the hospital, their diagnosis was often poor with advanced disease.

We would go out in a bus to visit some of the Bedouin camps and set up an out-patient style clinic for a couple of hours each week. Many of the camps we visited had never seen a Western woman before. I learnt a lot about being resourceful, flexible and keeping a sense of humour whilst working in the Middle East. I also learnt that smiles and laughter cut through many language barriers.

In 1984, I began working at The Princess Margaret Hospital in Toronto, Canada which was such a fabulous experience. The 1980s were a period where planning computers were changing things at a very rapid pace. Treatment and planning techniques were improving and the delivery of radiation had become much more precise. Unlike the early days of lower energy radiation, the new higher energy radiation could treat deeper tissue and minimize the dose to the skin which was of great benefit to the patients.

Fast forward 30 years and here I am in Sydney doing a job I had absolutely no idea I would enjoy so much all those years ago when I started in 1974. I’ve treated thousands of patients over the years as a radiation therapist. It’s such a rewarding thing to help and support people in their time of need. I hope I have made a difference. Every patient is different and the variety in our role allows us to use many skills. Sometimes they just want a hand to hold or someone to talk to. You need to be able to pick up on cues from the patient. I see my patients every day, Monday to Friday, sometimes for up to eight weeks. I get to know them and get to know their story. We laugh, we cry and sometimes we just have some quiet time together because it’s that sort of day. My job is caring for the patient at every level from the technical aspect right through to getting a warm blanket and warming their toes.

I think my favourite times are when patients come back months later and seek me out within the department and we have a lovely hug because they’ve been given the all clear and they can get on with their life. That is the most satisfying time for me.

People are often surprised when they hear that 20 per cent of patients that might benefit from radiation therapy do NOT receive it. I find that there are a lot of people who don’t know about it. We need to share the knowledge of how radiation therapy can help and have a lot of conversations!

Radiation therapy has played an important role in the treatment of cancer for a very long time. With advancements in technology, techniques and the precision of treatment, high doses of radiation can be accurately targeted at tumours while minimizing exposure to surrounding healthy tissue. Currently, these advancements have allowed patients to be able to consider radiation therapy as non-surgical option for certain types of tumours with comparable if not better outcomes. Going through a radical course of radiation therapy is challenging and patients need support. It is a safe, viable and cost effective option for many patients who in the past may have otherwise had surgery as their only option. Also, radiation therapy is very effective for pain relief.

I consider myself extremely lucky to be in this job and wouldn’t change it for anything.

For more information on the role and uses of radiation therapy, click here.