High Dose Radiation: People Make it Work

New technology targets cancer with high-dose radiation. Radiation therapists humanize the experience.

David Evancich, one of first patients at NCCC to receive Varian Truebeam treatment for cancer of the esophagus, describes his radiation treatments.

A new linear accelerator targets cancer with high doses of radiation while protecting surrounding tissue, but this new technology is only as good as the people who administer it. NCCC's radiation therapists apply sophisticated technical skills while connecting with patients.

When Kerry A. Tillson started in radiation oncology more than 30 years ago, she monitored patients on a screen that looked like a TV set and used thumbwheels to set the dose on a single small machine. Today, the assistant chief therapist in Radiation Oncology at NCCC uses the newest technology in radiation oncology, with computerized measuring systems, multiple monitor screens, and a Truebeam linear accelerator that moves around a patient to deliver targeted high dose radiation treatment.

New linear accelerator targets cancer with high dose radiation while protecting healthy tissue

Last fall Tillson and another therapist traveled to Las Vegas for intensive training on the Varian Truebeam linear accelerator, the newest machine in NCCC's Radiation Oncology department. Since their return they have been training the other 22 radiation therapists who work in teams to treat patients at the Lebanon and St. Johnsbury sites.

Craig B. Hansen, chief radiation therapist in Radiation Oncology, says the new Truebeam machine delivers high doses of radiation to tumors while minimizing the dose to surrounding tissue. This makes treatment more efficient and effective, and can shorten the time a patient spends on the table.

"The Truebeam has superior imaging and monitoring systems that make it easier to guide the patient through treatment," he said. "Another feature allows us to fine-tune the positioning of the table holding the patient, so we can get an accurate angle and view of tumors that might move inside the body, as in prostate cancer"

But Hansen quickly adds that the machine is only part of the treatment process, and he is especially proud of his dedicated team of radiation therapists. "You can have all the technology in the world—it's the staff that makes the difference."

The best radiation therapists: skilled technicians who connect with people

Tillson agrees. Most patients receive from 10 to 44 treatments, often 5 days a week, and the radiation therapists build relationships with their patients. "You get to know them, their family, find out what their grandkids did on weekend," she said. "The best radiation therapists are good technologists but also good at connecting with people."

Radiation therapists humanize the technology and the experience

David Evancich, one of first patients at NCCC to receive Truebeam treatment for cancer of the esophagus, says receiving the Truebeam treatment can feel very high-tech and surreal—a little like walking onto a starship (hear him describe his experience on this video). He appreciates that the radiation therapists are friendly and funny as they carefully position him onto green laser-beamed gridlines and then monitor the process on several computer screens. He says their care helps to humanize the technology and the experience.

"You have to believe in the team and the technology"

For Evancich, even the latest technology is only as good as the people who are recommending and administering: it always comes down to believing in the people behind the machines.

"The big decision every patient has to make is to decide you have confidence in the physicians, the clinicians, and the techs. Do they know what they are doing?" he said. "Treatment will not always go smoothly, and there will be days when you are uncomfortable and cranky and frustrated. To go forth with vigor you have to believe in the team and the technology."

August 26, 2013