Cytotechnologists may work in labs far from patients, but they are on the front lines in the war against cancer. When suspicious cells are shed, scraped or aspirated from a patient and sent for testing, cytotechnologists prepare, stain and carefully study them, looking for subtle differences in the color, size and shape of cell structures.
Peering through microscopes, cytotechnologists strive to uncover the answers that lie in the specimens trapped in glass slides. Is the tissue benign, premalignant or malignant? What type of cancer is it? Is there a genetic abnormality? Working closely with pathologists, cytotechnologists provide information vital to making an accurate diagnosis and developing an appropriate treatment plan.
"When you help make a diagnosis, you know you're making a difference," says cytotechnologist Maria Friedlander, CT (ASCT), MPA, public relations chair of the American Society for Cytotechnology.
Cytotechnology (CT) began in the '50s as the familiar Pap smear but has expanded from there. Today, cytotechnologists study specimens from virtually every organ of the body to help diagnose cancer and other diseases, like viral and bacterial infections.
Cytotechnologists need a bachelor's degree and clinical education in a cytotechnology program accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP). While there were 120 accredited cytotechnology programs in the '70s, today there are just 48, according to Barbara DuBray Benstein, PhD, SCT (ASCP), director of the cytotechnology program at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center's College of Allied Health Sciences.
At the University of Tennessee, cytotechnology students enter an intense one-year program after completing three years of specific academic work at an accredited college or university. They graduate with a bachelor's degree in cytotechnology and are eligible for the certification exam administered by the American Society for Clinical Pathology Board of Registry. With advanced experience and/or education, cytotechnologists can obtain additional certification as a specialist in cytotechnology, or SCT (ASCP).
Because cytotechnology is a small, highly specialized field, "employment demand can fluctuate quickly and dramatically, from 5 to 40 percent in one year," Benstein says. She predicts a huge demand in the next five to 10 years, when many of the professionals who entered the field in the '70s will begin to retire.
Nationally, the average starting salary for cytotechnologists is approximately $28,500, although salaries vary by region, according to the ASCP.
Distinctly Different Options
Cytotechs work mainly in private laboratories and hospitals, each of which offers a different professional experience:
- Private Labs: Since these labs process the vast majority of the nation's Pap smears, cytotechs examine a limited variety of specimens at high volume (perhaps 80 Pap smears a day).
- University or Teaching Hospitals: In an academic setting, cytotechs handle a greater variety of specimens, see more unusual cases and collaborate with healthcare professionals.
- Community Hospitals: These hospitals tend to have smaller cytotech staffs, who tend to see fewer complex cases and have a broader range of responsibilities.
Smaller numbers of cytotech professionals work in public health facilities and in industry.
Day in the Life of a Cytotech
As chief supervisor of the cytopathology lab at Strong Memorial Hospital within the University of Rochester Medical Center in New York, Michael Facik, CT (ASCP), MPA, supervises a staff of 14 cytotechnologists, four prep staff and seven data processors who handle about 85,000 specimens a year. In addition, he trains pathology residents and fellows. "In an academic environment, you see very rare, strange cases," says Facik, a Cytology Fellow in the International Academy of Cytology. "Plus there is a lot of teaching. It's not just sitting at the microscope all day."
Regardless of their work setting, all cytotechnologists need to be highly responsible, adept problem solvers, accurate and reliable. Plus, they must be highly visual and able to detect subtle nuances. "It's like art," says Friedlander, a member of the CAAHEP's Cytotechnology Programs Review Committee. "You spend your day looking at pretty pictures." But these pictures are worth a thousand words as they divulge the secrets within a patient's cells.