Finding balance on the frontlines of cancer care

An unexpected turn of life events led Britny Martens to become one of the first graduating UAlberta radiation therapists.

Laura Vega - 6 June 2017

Britny Martens knew at a very young age she wanted a career in health care. When her father was diagnosed with an aggressive autoimmune kidney disease, her family experienced first-hand the impact of good patient care.

"He had lots of complications, we were in the hospital a lot," said Martens. "As a 10-year-old I could understand the difference between somebody who had compassion and care for their patients, and who was motivated by it, versus the people who just do their job. I really liked to see that compassion, and I decided that was what I wanted to do, impact people in a positive role."

Martens stepped into a university classroom for the first time determined to become an anesthesiologist-a health professional that she viewed as "a really cool doctor" when she was growing up. Her plans changed when her dad's health took a turn for the worse.

"I was in finals and we didn't know if he was going to make it or not. I started to wonder if I was going in the right direction. My dad was dying, I was trying to balance finals... I just started to question everything."

Her father survived the health crisis. "It was very shocking. But I did question more what I wanted from a career in health care, and it was the relationships with patients. I started browsing what else was out there."

Oncology caught her eye, and she stumbled upon the brand new radiation therapy program at the U of A. She had found her match.

Moving forward with mindfulness

For Martens, radiation therapy brought a new set of challenges: to complete the prerequisites quickly after the sudden change of academic focus, and the uncertainty of being in the new program's first cohort of students.

"We were the guinea pigs, there was a lot of learning from us too," she said. "I had some reservations during the first week or so, but mostly I had faith in the university and its reputation. I gained a lot of confidence."

Being at the forefront of cancer care, interaction with patients is a given for a radiation therapist. Perhaps the biggest surprise for Martens was finding out that the program would help her create bonds with her patients even stronger than what she had imagined, to a point that would seem emotionally overwhelming at times.

"Oncology is an intense realm. Not everything is a sad story, lots of people are there for a curative treatment. What kept me going was practicing mindfulness and reflection. You'll have hard days sometimes, but you can let yourself feel those emotions and move forward by focusing on the positive: What can I do today for this patient that can really make a difference?"

Reaching the end of her program, mindfulness has become the biggest lesson she will take away. She also remembers how important the support of her peers and family was to overcome every test she encountered and the anxiety that came with it.

"Radiation therapists play an unusual role. You're acting like a counselor to the patients, you ask them about their day, or 'What are you up to later tonight?' I get to know them at a personal level and even find common interests with them. I didn't anticipate that but it's been the most rewarding and exciting part of all this."

A future wide open to happenstance

Martens is now looking for her first job in her new profession. Although she wants to practice in Alberta, she's keeping her options open. A drastic change of plans led her to radiation therapy, and she is drawing on that past life experience to enjoy the present and seize the happenstances that may come her way.

She offers this farewell advice for future U of A students: Don't forget to get involved.

"During the intro week they tell you that there are always cool things you can do on campus… Do yourself a favour, and do it. It's so easy to get focused on studying and not remember to give yourself some breathing room sometimes. Even if it's one day a week of 'you' time to develop personal skills… Anything to make you a well-rounded person is beneficial."