Health Living: Radiotherapy nothing to be afraid of

Cancer patient Maureen Youel receiving radiotherapy at Weston Park Hospital
Cancer patient Maureen Youel receiving radiotherapy at Weston Park Hospital
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AS we mark 100 years since Marie Curie won her second Nobel Prize for research into radium therapy, The Society of Radiographers has organised a national campaign to raise awareness of the vital cancer treatment. Sarah Dunn spoke to patients whose life were saved by the procedure.

AS we mark 100 years since Marie Curie won her second Nobel Prize for research into radium therapy, The Society of Radiographers has organised a national campaign to raise awareness of the vital cancer treatment. Sarah Dunn spoke to patients whose life were saved by the procedure.

MAUREEN Youel feels lucky to be here today.

As a survivor of cancer in the face of two other medical conditions, she is full of appreciation and admiration for the health care professionals who treated her, giving her chance to still be around to watch her three “gorgeous” granddaughters grow up.

It is all down to the care and treatment she received at Weston Park cancer hospital in Sheffield following the diagnosis of a tumour in her oesophagus which could not be operated on because of its proximity to other vital organs.

Instead she underwent chemotherapy followed by radiotherapy over a number of weeks.

Although Maureen admits she was nervous ahead of the treatment, she had complete faith in the people caring for her and accepted what needed to be done.

In the end she was pleasantly surprised by the radiotherapy - comparing the quick and painless treatment to like undergoing an X-ray.

Sadly, all too often the Society and College of Radiographers has found that people’s perceptions of the process are largely stuck in the past - ideas which often lead to enhanced worry and stress in the run up to treatment.

Moira Tomlinson, senior manager in radiation services at the hospital, explained: “We want to raise the profile of radiotherapy - a vital treatment that saves the life of 28 per cent of people who had cancer.

“Unfortunately, when you talk to people about it you find their perceptions of it are really negative - they often think it makes you sick, that it burns the skin, that it makes your hair fall out, even that they’re going to be come ‘radioactive’.

“But in reality this is a modern department, delivering cutting edge treatment. Many patients don’t even suffer side effects, and those that do are relatively minor and can be managed by other medication.

“People can also attend for radiotherapy as an out-patient - meaning they can come in, undergo the treatment, and then go away again and get on with their lives.

“The aim of this campaign is to try and dispel some of the myths around the treatment, and educated and reassure people about what it involves. If we can take away some of the worry and fear surrounding it, then the whole process should be a bit easier if people ever do find themselves needing radiotherapy.”

The treatment has certainly come a long way since Marie Curie’s discoveries in at the beginning of the 20th century.

Even in the 30 years Moira has been working in the area, the progress has been huge.

The principle of using a dose of high energy cells targeted at one area in order to destroy the cancerous cells. Getting the dose right is key, since it has to be strong enough to kill the malignant cells, but should not damage the healthy cells beyond the point where they can repair themselves.

Moira said key developments over her years in the profession had included being able to change the shape and thickness of the rays - allowing a more precise form of treatment - and the introduction of virtual simulators which provide 3D images, allowing radiographers to map the route of the beams more effectively.

Indeed, Weston Park - which treats more than 3,800 patients each year with radiotherapy - was only the second place in the UK to introduce such a machine 15 years ago, funded by the Weston Park Hospital Cancer Charity. Since 1994 the charity has donated £3.2m to support the development of radiotherapy services at the hospital since 1994, money which paid for more state-of-the-art equipment as well as pioneering research trials.

Rachel Thorpe, director of the charity, said: “We are very proud of the contribution that the charity has made to the development of radiotherapy at Weston Park Hospital

“None of this would be possible without the continuing support of the public who take part in fund raising events and donate to the charity.”

Maureen is one of the charity’s regular supporters - donating a regular payment each month, a pledge she has expressed in her will continues when she is no longer here.

Not that the 69-year-old shows any signs of going anywhere yet.

Her check-up appointments have now been reduced to every six months, and if she gets the all-clear again in December she won’t have to go back for another year.

Despite ongoing issues with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and rheumatoid arthritis, Maureen, from Staincross, Barnsley, knows she is one of the lucky ones. And she is keen to spread the message that radiotherapy holds nothing to be afraid of.

“As soon as they told me what needed doing, I just agreed,” she said.

“They are the experts and they know best - they are trying to save your life. Of course you are bound to be nervous, but I felt no pain whatsoever during my radiotherapy - it was just as though I was having an X-ray.

“My chest might have been a little bit red afterwards but there were no real side effects. I hate being in hospital too, so it was great to be able to travel in each day and it only took around 30 minutes each session, meaning you can start to get on with your life again.”

Eric White, from Matlock, is another satisfied patient who received radiotherapy at Weston Park.

The 75-year-old granddad was referred there from Chesterfield Royal Hospital after being diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2006 and had the option of undergoing surgery or radiotherapy - opting for the latter because of upcoming surgery on his hip.

Eric said: “The clinic was brilliant.

“I have rather an enquiring mind and after I had been told what my options were to treat the cancer and the effects that these would have I was able to ask questions.

“The staff were honest about the treatment and explained the pros and cons. I was then able to make the choice about what treatment I would have and I chose to have radiotherapy.

“I worried about things like drinking water and having to go to the loo. But when I went in for my radiotherapy my fears disappeared, I felt no qualms about it. I was told what would happen to me and what I could expect and the staff were brilliant.

“It didn’t hurt or burn and I didn’t have any side effects. I was able to go home the same day. I never had to wait for treatment. It was very, very smooth.

“You can go in with confidence, don’t panic at all - you’re in good hands.”