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100 years of radiotherapy but public still in the dark over the treatment

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by Cancer Research UK | News

28 January 2011

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Fewer than one in ten people think radiotherapy is a modern cancer treatment according to the results of a survey* published today (Friday).

The research, involving more than 2000 UK adults, highlights how little people understand about radiotherapy – a treatment which helps cure four in ten patients, more than conventional chemotherapy.

While 47 per cent of those asked thought targeted cancer drugs, like Herceptin, were modern, only nine per cent appreciated that radiotherapy is also a modern, cutting-edge treatment.

New, more targeted radiotherapy techniques such as intensity modulated radiotherapy (IMRT) or image guided radiotherapy (IGRT) are transforming the lives of cancer patients. These new ways of delivering radiotherapy mean cancer cells are targeted more precisely, increasing cure rates, and patients experience fewer side effects.

But the survey revealed that only 15 per cent of people think radiotherapy is precise. And 40 per cent of people describe radiotherapy as frightening compared to just 16 per cent who said the same for targeted cancer drugs.

Marie Curie won her second Nobel Prize for her work on radium in 1911 – exactly 100 years ago – and was one of the leading pioneers in radiation as a cancer therapy. Radiotherapy is now recommended for half of all cancer patients as part of their treatment.

The survey results are being released to launch 2011 as the Year of Radiotherapy as part of a national initiative designed to help improve public understanding and increase awareness of the value of radiotherapy. The awareness programme will be officially unveiled at the College of Radiographers annual radiotherapy conference in Birmingham today (Friday).

Although twice as many people had heard of radiotherapy (89 per cent) than had heard of targeted cancer therapy (44 per cent) – more people said they would be very likely to ask their consultant about targeted therapy (52 per cent) compared to radiotherapy (47 per cent) following a cancer diagnosis, after learning a little about each one.

Oliver Waugh, a 47 year old business consultant from London, was diagnosed with tonsil cancer in 2009. He had IMRT after joining a Cancer Research UK funded clinical trial to investigate whether this newer type of radiotherapy was as effective as standard radiotherapy but less damaging to the surrounding tissue and having fewer side effects like dry mouth.

Oliver said: “I was really pleased to have joined the PARSPORT trial and to be offered IMRT. I know the side effects from regular radiotherapy could have been far more severe. I suffered with a dry mouth due to a cold recently and found the sensation very uncomfortable but that was only short term. I can’t imagine what it would be like living with that full time. My mouth is producing saliva again and most of the other effects of treatment are slowly wearing off or being managed. I can even eat what I want now, including curries and other spicy food and feel lucky that the high quality of my treatment has helped me lead a regular life again.

“Like most people I didn’t really know a lot about radiotherapy before beginning my treatment. But my cancer experience changed that. I’ve learnt a lot about it and it’s something of an unsung hero. It’s vital in helping treat so many patients and deserves much better recognition.”

Professor Tim Maughan, a Cancer Research UK funded researcher and consultant clinical oncologist based at the Velindre Hospital in Cardiff, said: “We hear a lot about chemotherapy and less about radiotherapy which actually has a better cure rate. But most people don’t realise that.

“A century after Marie Curie won the Nobel Prize for her work on radium we’ve seen radiotherapy develop into an incredible tool in treating cancer. It is more precise than ever and contributes to almost half of all cancer cures. Research in the UK has been instrumental in improving the treatment and it’s vital that progress is delivered to all patients.

“We must ensure that radiotherapy is properly funded to train more staff and to provide more equipment. If the public understands the value of radiotherapy we can keep up the focus on such an important treatment and help give patients the world class treatment they deserve.”

Professor Mike Richards, the National Clinical Director for Cancer, said: “Radiotherapy is one of the key treatments for cancer. Improving access to, and uptake of radiotherapy will undoubtedly contribute to saving lives. Using modern radiotherapy we can target the cancer more accurately than ever before and so further increase cure rates and reduce side effects. ‘Improving Outcomes: A Strategy for Cancer’, the recently published national cancer strategy, clearly recognises the role of radiotherapy and commits additional funding.”


For more information contact the Cancer Research UK press office on 020 3469 8300, or out of hours on 07050 264 059.