Radiotherapy the unsung hero of cancer care, say experts

Tuesday, 20 April 2010 - 9:01pm IST | Place: London | Agency: ANI
Although surgery is often the first-line of treatment and anti-cancer drugs make more headlines, radiotherapy zaps cancer cells, complements chemotherapy, relieves symptoms and shrinks tumours before surgery.

Experts at the world's leading cancer charity have said that radiotherapy, which is a crucial cancer treatment, is often the unsung hero of cancer care.

Although surgery is often the first-line of treatment and anti-cancer drugs make more headlines, radiotherapy zaps cancer cells, complements chemotherapy, relieves symptoms and shrinks tumours before surgery.

In fact, four out of ten cancer patients who have beaten the disease receive the treatment at some point - and 120,000 people in the UK benefit from radiotherapy every year.

But despite its benefits, it still has a slightly scary reputation, possibly because as it destroys cancer cells with a beam of high-energy rays, radiotherapy - like other cancer treatments - can also damage healthy cells.

The treatment can lead to unpleasant reactions on the skin, tiredness, hair loss and mouth ulcers.

But over the last 20 years huge strides have been made to improve radiotherapy and reduce these side effects.

According to Cancer Research UK, decades of research into improving radiotherapy have made it more effective, sophisticated and targeted than it has ever been - and side effects have been reduced.

Just last year, Dr Chris Nutting presented early results from a Cancer Research UK-funded radiotherapy trial called PARSPORT, run by The Institute of Cancer Research and The Royal Marsden Hospital.

The trial tested a new cutting edge radiotherapy technique called intensity modulated radiotherapy (IMRT), as mentioned in the video above.

Doctors found they were able to target the tumour more accurately in patients with head and neck cancers, and avoid damage to the salivary glands - a common side effect of radiotherapy to the head.

Damage to these glands can lead to a dry mouth, as well as increasing the chance of mouth ulcers and infections.

The researchers found that after a year, only 39% of the 94 patients who had the new treatment suffered from dry mouth compared to 74% who had the traditional treatment - a substantial improvement in quality of life.

David Jenkins, a journalist who is now 61, took part in the PARSPORT trial after a diagnosis of throat cancer.

"After I was diagnosed I was told that the radiotherapy treatment I needed would leave me with debilitating side effects," the Daily Express quoted him as saying.

"But I got lucky: I agreed to take part in the PARSPORT trial and was randomly chosen for the new treatment - to my great good fortune because I sailed through my treatment with virtually no side effects.

"I was able to eat and drink normally throughout treatment and ever since. My taste buds were unaffected and I have at no time suffered from a dry mouth.

"I feel so lucky to have been part of this trial. I really hope more people with this type of cancer can benefit in the future from this new way of giving radiotherapy," he said.

Cancer Research UK and the Medical Research Council are investing more in research into radiotherapy by funding the Gray Institute for Radiation Oncology and Biology.

The high-tech institute is led by Professor Gillies McKenna, a world expert in radiation biology.

Professor McKenna's track record in research on 'radiobiology' - the study of how radiation affects cells - is second to none.

"This is an exciting time to be in radiotherapy research, as there are so many new possibilities on the horizon," Professor McKenna said.

"Finding new ways of targeting tumours more precisely with radiation and making tumours more susceptible to radiation will benefit many cancer patients in the future.

"The new centre is designed to foster collaboration between scientists from quite distinct areas of expertise, and I'm confident it will be the source of many groundbreaking discoveries," he added.


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