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Radiotherapy – the unsung hero of cancer treatment

Posted Jan 28 2011 12:00am

Radiotherapy is one of the cornerstones of cancer treatment. It may seem surprising to read, but it cures more patients than cancer drugs do.

But a new survey this week shows that radiotherapy isn’t getting the credit it deserves. We believe this lack of public awareness is having a serious impact on the UK’s ability to provide the best cancer care.

So in a bid to change radiotherapy’s status as the unsung hero in the fight against cancer, we’re launching the Year of Radiotherapy, together with other members of the National Radiotherapy Awareness Initiative.

It’s been 100 years since Marie Curie (“the Godmother of radiotherapy”) received her second Nobel Prize, making it a good time to shine the spotlight on this truly life-saving treatment.

To kick-start the Year of Radiotherapy, Cancer Research UK’s Policy and Public Affairs Team organised a briefing for MPs in Parliament. Their mission was to give radiotherapy a higher profile, building stronger political support for providing world-class radiotherapy services in the UK.

Cutting-edge technology

As the 31 attending MPs discovered, radiotherapy is far from being outdated or old-fashioned. Four in ten people who beat cancer have received radiotherapy, and over 120,000 cancer patients in the UK benefit from the treatment every year.

Professor Michelle Saunders, former director of the Cancer Research UK Tumour Biology and Radiation Therapy Group,  explained how cutting-edge new techniques are helping to target the cancer-fighting powers of radiotherapy. This ensures that cancer cells are hit harder, making the treatment even more effective and helping to minimise side effects.

Cancer Research UK scientists are at the forefront of efforts to develop targeted radiotherapy. IMRT (intensity-modulated radiotherapy) is one of these new techniques – it allows doctors to boost the amount of radiation to the tumour, while limiting damage to nearby tissue.

Improving access

Improving cancer treatment is high on MPs’ agendas at the moment, thanks to the recently published national cancer strategy for England. And Russell Hart, radiotherapy services manager at Nottingham University Hospitals, was keen to emphasise that more government support is needed to make sure all cancer patients have access to the best radiotherapy.

It’s not only about investing in the machines needed for new treatments. In fact, many of the UK’s radiotherapy units have been upgraded in recent years – but we now urgently need to ensure enough staff are properly trained, so that the benefits of this technology can be brought to as many patients as possible

Helping patients

As always, our focus is on helping patients and saving lives. And after hearing about the science and the economics of radiotherapy, the assembled MPs heard what it really means to a cancer survivor.

Claire Daniels was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma when she was 19. She was treated at The Christie in Manchester, where she received a range of different treatments. The last of these was radiotherapy – given to kill off any cancer cells remaining after her other treatments.

Claire, who now works at Cancer Research UK, explained that at the time radiotherapy seemed like a routine treatment to her. But it was a key part of her journey towards being fit and healthy again. She urged MPs to make sure radiotherapy is given the attention it deserves, so that more people like her can benefit from it.

Radiotherapy also plays a more subtle role in improving patients’ quality of life. Sarah Heyler from the Royal Marsden’s radiotherapy department explained how the women she treats for breast cancer can be spared mastectomy thanks to radiotherapy. Surgery to remove the tumour, combined with radiotherapy, is just as effective as a full mastectomy in preventing the cancer from coming back. With increasing numbers of people living beyond cancer, choices like this are becoming more important than ever.

Spreading the word

Radiotherapy is stepping into the limelight. This crucial treatment needs investment and support to help the UK succeed in saving more lives and beating cancer.

Cancer Research UK’s pioneering work laid the foundations for modern radiotherapy, and now we’re reinvigorating research into this treatment. Our scientists are carrying out groundbreaking work at our radiobiology institute in Oxford, and at other sites around the UK.

But without investment from the government, this research won’t bring all the benefits it could do. It’s time for MPs and our supporters to spread the word, and help keep the UK at the forefront of radiotherapy research and treatment.

That’s why were calling on the Government in England to introduce an action plan for radiotherapy. You can add your name to our petition and become a voice for radiotherapy .

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