Poor public awareness highlights radiotherapy's 'Cinderella' status

Cancer Research UK

Only one in ten people know that radiotherapy helps cure forty per cent of cancer patients according to new figures* published by Cancer Research UK today (Tuesday).

The survey of more than 2,000 people from across the UK also reveals just 14 per cent are aware that half of all cancer patients could benefit from radiotherapy as part of their treatment.

Cancer Research UK believes lack of public awareness about radiotherapy’s importance in treating cancer is having a serious impact on providing world class treatment for the UK.

The survey showed that the public rate other cancer treatments – surgery, chemotherapy or targeted drugs – higher than radiotherapy as cutting edge treatments.

A Cancer Research UK report estimates that only 38 per cent of cancer patients in England are getting radiotherapy although research shows that up to 50 per cent might benefit.

Differences in staffing levels and equipment means UK health care trusts are failing to offer equal opportunities for patients to receive radiotherapy. For those patients who are being offered radiotherapy many suffer unacceptably long waiting times before receiving their treatment.

As the population ages cancer rates are expected to increase. Planning for the future is vital if the health service is going to meet the increased demand for radiotherapy.

The UK is also lagging behind America and Europe in introducing new, more targeted radiotherapy technology. Techniques and equipment such as intensity modulated radiotherapy (IMRT) or image guided radiotherapy (IGRT) are more commonly available in these other health systems.

IMRT uses computers to control the radiotherapy machine to vary the intensity of the radiation beams, helping to closely match the three dimensional shape of the tumour. It gives very precise doses to a cancer or to specific areas within the tumour while minimising the dose to nearby tissues.

IGRT takes images of the cancer before and during radiotherapy so the doctor can make sure the treatment is precise and accurate.

There is some good news. The number of people receiving radiotherapy in the UK has increased by 75 per cent since 2000 and the number of radiographers giving treatment rose by 40 per cent between 2000 and 2006.

But the Government has acknowledged that more must be done.

David Jenkins was diagnosed with throat cancer in 2006. David took part in the Cancer Research UK funded clinical trial PARSPORT and received IMRT as part of his treatment.

David said: "I was lucky enough to take part in this Cancer Research UK trial. They were testing a more subtle and sophisticated approach to treating head and neck cancer. I had 30 days of radiotherapy after two lots of chemotherapy. Before treatment, I had several tests so the doctors knew exactly where to aim the radiotherapy beams.

"I had virtually no side effects – all the way through treatment and afterwards, I could eat, drink and taste perfectly normally. I sailed through. All in all, I was incredibly lucky in the way IMRT worked for me. Thanks to the trial and this treatment, I now lead a completely normal life again."

Professor Gillies McKenna, director of the Gray Institute for Radiation Oncology and Biology at the University of Oxford, said: “Radiotherapy is a critical part of cancer treatment. We know that around 20 per cent of cancer patients receive a new type of modulated radiotherapy (IMRT) in Europe, while the UK is only delivering IMRT to seven per cent of patients. This newer type of radiotherapy is more effective in delivering targeted treatment, minimising side-effects to other parts of the body.”

Harpal Kumar, Cancer Research UK’s chief executive, said: “Radiotherapy has a key part to play in treating and curing around 40 per cent of cancers so it’s vital there is good, fast access to this service.

“Radiotherapy has improved substantially over the last 10 years but there are vital areas that need to be addressed to help deliver the best treatment for patients. Raising awareness of the importance of radiotherapy is the first step to improving services for this undervalued treatment. Radiotherapy needs the same level of public support that new drugs have. We have seen awareness helping steer priorities with other treatments and believe this should happen with radiotherapy.

“It’s important that all areas of the UK offer the same opportunities for patients to have radiotherapy wherever they live. Careful and sustained planning is needed across the UK if we are to build a world-class service for radiotherapy for the future.”

Professor Sir Mike Richards, national cancer director, said: “Delivering state of the art radiotherapy is a complex operation. We are now planning ways to boost services to meet the needs of future cancer patients so we can offer radiotherapy to all those who would benefit from it.”

ENDS

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Notes to Editor

Radiographer - a person trained to deliver radiotherapy treatment or take x-rays. Therapeutic radiographers plan and deliver treatment using radiation. Diagnostic radiographers produce and interpret high-quality images of the body to diagnose injuries and diseases. For example, x-rays, ultrasound or CT scans carried out in hospital.

Radiologist - a doctor who specialises in reading X-rays and scans, and carrying out scans and other specialist X-ray techniques.

Clinical oncologist - is a doctor who specialises in treating patients with radiotherapy. Known as a radiotherapist in America.