Imagine coming to work every day putting together puzzle after puzzle. That’s what Charlene Gordon, medical dosimetrist at Willmar Regional Cancer Center (WRCC) does each day.
What is a Medical Dosimetrist?
As the WRCC’s sole medical dosimetrist Charlene is tasked with piecing together the different elements of a cancer patient’s radiation treatment plan. Her job isn’t one many people have heard of—often times, not even the cancer patients she helps. Though her job is behind the scenes, it requires her to work closely with the radiation oncologist, medical physicist and radiation therapists to determine a unique radiation treatment plan for each patient.
The oncologist will decide the best treatment option and pinpoint which area needs to be treated. That’s where Charlene comes in. The radiation oncologist prescribes the dose of radiation, the number of treatments and the size and location of the tumors to determine exactly where the radiation should enter the body for each patient. Imaging such as CT, MRI and PET scans and treatment planning computers allows precise placement of the radiation fields. Then the medical physicist reviews each plan before the information is input into a patient’s medical record and used for treatment. That treatment plan is loaded to the linear accelerator, a machine that delivers the radiation to the patient.
“We’re here to help people beat cancer. Each of us plays an important role. We function as a team, working together to get each patient’s treatment plan just right,” Charlene said. “My job is a balancing act, because I have to be absolutely sure that the treatment our patients receive delivers the prescribed radiation to a precise location all while reducing exposure to other parts of the body near the cancer.”
Rapid Advances in an Ever-changing Field
Radiation therapy has changed a lot since Charlene first entered the field in 1983.
“When I first started out I was a radiation therapist, and we had to load heavy lead blocks—some as heavy as 50 pounds—into our accelerator, to block the radiation beams so that our patients only received radiation where the tumor was. Our linear accelerator does most of the work for us now. We still use some lead blocks, but not like we used to. We didn’t need a gym membership to build our muscles then,” Charlene joked.
A linear accelerator delivers radiation beams that match the shape of each patient’s tumor during treatment to the exact location radiation is needed, while protecting nearby organs and tissue from the radiation.
Technology has also played a role in how Charlene does her job.
“The use of computers make our work easier, faster and also helps with patient safety by preventing human error,” she said.
“Over the past 30 years, we’ve seen so many positive changes in this field. I can’t imagine all the things that will be different in medical dosimetry and radiation therapy 30 years from now,” Charlene said.
Until There’s a Cure
Though she enjoys what she does, it can be difficult, too. “I love what I do, but it can be really challenging emotionally. I may not get to know our patients like other members of our healthcare team, but I love knowing that what I do makes a difference in the lives of our patients,” Charlene said.
Until the day there is a cure for cancer, Charlene and the rest of the healthcare team at the Willmar Regional Cancer Center will continue to work together so that their patients may one day be told they’re cancer free.
“Providing quality cancer care close to home for our patients and their families is what the WRCC is all about,” she said. “It’s such an honor to be a part of each patient’s journey.”