Healthy Living: Sophisticated radiation offers vital rays of hope

Stephen Tozer-Loft Head of Radiotherapy Physics at Weston Park Hospital'. � Paul David Drabble.
Stephen Tozer-Loft Head of Radiotherapy Physics at Weston Park Hospital'. � Paul David Drabble.
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Radiotherapy is an integral part of the fight against cancer - but when the doors of Sheffield’s Weston Park Hospital first opened in 1970, the treatment was far less advanced than it was today.

In the decades since, radiation therapy has improved in leaps and bounds, with experts refining its effectiveness to target tumours better then ever.

However, according to former radiographer Catherine Anthony, Weston Park’s cancer information co-ordinator, myths still persist about the risks associated with the treatment which she’s determined to shatter.

Catherine began her career studying medical physics when the hospital was established, and has been a familiar face at the site for more than 30 years, as an employee and even as a patient during her own battle against cancer.

She said patients sometimes fear they will become ‘radioactive’, and that the dose of radiation they receive will have a harmful effect on others.

“Some people think if you receive radiotherapy you will be ‘radioactive’ and need to stay away from certain people such as children and pregnant woman,” she said.

“I think this is based on stories from many years ago when radium was used as a form of radiotherapy.

“In addition to this, the side effects to the patient’s skin was much more severe, being described as ‘burnt’. It is true to say that there will be side effects from radiotherapy depending on the area of the body receiving treatment, but advances in delivering and targeting treatment have meant the effects are kept as minimal as possible.”

Weston Park is the only dedicated cancer hospital in the region and one of only four in England. It houses the sole radiotherapy department in South Yorkshire, which treats around 4,200 people every year.

There are two main types of radiotherapy currently available - external radiotherapy, which uses high-energy X-rays from outside the body to target the cells, or internal radiotherapy, in which radioactive material is placed inside the body.

Dr Stephen Tozer-Loft, head of radiotherapy physics at Weston Park, said use of the treatment is on the increase.

“This is mostly because of the increase in cancer due to our ageing population, but also because it has been recognised as a cutting-edge, safe and cost-effective treatment for cancer,” he said.

“We’re always trying to reduce the chances of side-effects, and technological advances mean we can now do this really well. We have very sophisticated ways of aiming the radiation beams specifically at the tumour cells while keeping away from the healthy tissue.”

Patients are given radiotherapy on a linear accelerator machine, or Linac.

Dr Tozer-Loft added: “Our radiotherapy machines are very sophisticated and expensive pieces of technology, but each one can treat up to 40 patients a day for 40 years.”

Young patient Natalie Heron was diagnosed with breast cancer at just 27, before receiving 20 short sessions of radiotherapy.

“Aside from feeling tired at times and experiencing some skin irritation, the side-effects of the treatment were almost non-existent,” said Natalie.

“There was no sickness, mouth or stomach problems or changes in appetite, which I experienced during chemotherapy.”

Meanwhile Catherine was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2002. She met her husband Michael in Weston Park’s radiotherapy department when she was 18, and her daughter Sarah also works at the hospital.

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Therapy bombards tumour site

Radiation therapy was developed in the 1890s and was already being used to treat cancer more than a century ago.

During the treatment, high energy radiation is used to bombard a tumour site, killing active cancer cells.

Radiotherapy is often used in conjunction with other therapies, including surgery and chemotherapy.

The process works by damaging the DNA within cancer cells. The cells then stop growing or die, after which the body breaks them down and gets rid of the waste substances. Normal cells may also be damaged, but they can usually repair themselves.

External radiotherapy is usually given on a Linac machine. The name comes from the fact that electrons are produced in the machine, then accelerated in a straight line, producing X-rays into a precisely-defined beam. The devices can weigh as much as three family cars.