"It's a scary moment, the first time you turn on the beam for a patient's treatment," says radiation therapist Kathleen Barsczewski. "Radiation damages the genetic structure of the tumor cells, preventing them from replicating. You must be totally vigilant about the power you have in your hands, and remember that there is a person attached to the cells you are trying to destroy."
Now chief radiation therapist at the Radiation Center of Greater Nashua in New Hampshire, Kathy began her professional studies right after graduating from Sacred Heart. "I was only 19," she says, "and I appreciated the older students who took me under their wings and supported me as we mastered the complex technology together, and learned how to be with people facing life-threatening disease."
After training at the Joint Center for Radiation Therapy at Harvard Medical School, she worked at Bridgeport Hospital, then joined the staff at her current facility, where she became chief radiation therapist in 1998. Her work is both highly technical and intensely human. "Patients are often frightened and vulnerable," Kathy says. "Sometimes you cry with them, or hug them, or just talk with them about what they did over the weekend."
At the same time, precision is everything, as Kathy and her colleagues deliver meticulously calculated and calibrated doses of radiation with "gigantic machines called linear accelerators that have every dial, knob, and circuit you can imagine." Radiation therapy has changed since Kathy first entered the field, with practitioners constantly embracing new and often more complex technologies. "If you think of how much phones have changed since the mid '80s," Kathy says, "you'll have an idea of how much radiation therapy has advanced."
Kathy shares her knowledge regularly as a guest lecturer in biology classes at Southern New Hampshire University, often finding that students come to her with their own stories about the effects of cancer on their lives.
Kathy herself has had her life touched by the disease; she has lost grandparents, co-workers, and best friends. She has chaired and participates in the Relay for Life® of Greater Nashua with her team, Radiating Hope. She has also participated in the Avon Walk for Breast Cancer in Boston and New York, joining forces with her sister-in-law who lost a sister to breast cancer and has another sister currently living with the disease.
"I fight hard for the day I may be out of a job because a cure has been found" she says, "Nothing would make me happier."