Cytotechnology is a big word for a field that's really about small things:
cells. Cytotechnologists examine human cell samples under powerful microscopes.
They search for early signs of cancer. Most of their work involves detecting
early signs of cervical cancer, seen in a sample as human papiloma virus (HPV).
Doctors rely upon their expert eyes to catch diseases in the earliest stages.
It's during these early stages that most diseases can still be treated with
a high success rate and minimal suffering for the patient.
Michael Facik is the chief cytotechnologist at the University of Rochester.
After more than 20 years, he remains focused on the extreme importance of
his position and his ability to perform well. He virtually saves lives.
"Keep in mind that you are the absolute first line of defence in somebody
surviving and living a long life. Right now, without a cure in sight for [cancer],
you're the one. You're the person. If someone thinks they have the skills
and the tenacity to do this, there's a reward," says Facik.
Combine excellent eyesight, an interest in medicine, a desire to save lives
and the strength to make subjective life-or-death decisions, and you've got
the stuff of a first-rate cytotechnologist.
On the other hand, who should steer clear of this career? "Someone who
cannot focus, who needs to be on their feet, who needs to be chatting, who
likes to be on the go," says Facik.
Cytotechnologists work with cell samples taken from a patient. After examining
them, the cytotechnologist issues a final report on specimens which contain
normal cells. The doctor then passes the good news back to the patient. When
abnormal cells are present, the cytotechnologist works with a pathologist
to arrive at a final diagnosis.
Facik admits that angry relationships can develop when the cytotech and
the doctor disagree on a diagnosis. However, they inevitably push their differences
aside and put the patient first.
"We convene on difficult cases and we always know that it's the patient
who needs a diagnosis. We want to make the right diagnosis, so we convene.
But it's subjective and it's interesting because disagreements are paramount,"
Cytotechnologists typically work Monday to Friday, but some private laboratories
may have evening and weekend shifts. The day-to-day work of a cytotechnologist
can be a bit isolated. They often spend most of their day examining cell samples
under a microscope.
Being alone with a sample and a microscope, says cytotechnologist Pauline
Atkinson, is important for her to work effectively. "While you do work with
other people, you're also working independently because the slides that you're
looking at are your responsibility. You make your decisions based on what
you're seeing. I basically like to work on my own. I like to be involved with
other people, but I like to be responsible for myself and what I'm doing,"
Technologists rarely see the patient whose samples they're examining. There
will be times, however, when a cytologist works at a patient's bedside. "You
may be involved in assisting and preparing the slides at the patient's bedside
during hospital procedures," says Atkinson. "[Contact] is limited but you
do have some...which puts it in perspective and keeps you reminded that you're
dealing with people out there."
Visual learners with strong eyesight do well as cytotechnologists. Sue
Stowell teaches college seniors to recognize malignant cells in samples from
all parts of the human body. "[You're] looking for the abnormal or unusual
cells among many normal ones," she says.
Within this century, it is likely that robots' eyes will read human cell
samples. According to Facik, automated cytotechnology is the next big thing.
But he says we're not quite ready for it yet, and human cytotechnologists
remain essential to the fight against cancer.
"They're going to try to teach machines to read smears. Right now, it's
in neophyte stages. It's just too risky to rely on a machine to do what a
human eye is supposed to do -- too many nuances involved. We actually had
two automated machines here and I'll tell you, it's a bit scary right now
"Who knows? Fifty years down the road, we'll see," says Facik.
Examine cells for signs of disease
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