Cancer radiotherapy

Cancer radiotherapy

Today NHS England announced that it will invest £130m over the next couple of years in new radiotherapy machines.

This is great news. Especially when research has shown that for some types of cancer, more advanced radiotherapy techniques – which the newer machines can provide – are what patients need.

It was around 4 years ago that we first raised the issue that England’s radiotherapy machines were becoming out of date and needed to be replaced. A point we’ve raised time and time again since.

So we were pleased when support for buying new machines featured in England’s cancer strategy, published last year.

And it’s fantastic that the NHS is now dedicating money to this unsung hero of cancer treatment.

So what are these new machines, and why is this money so vital?

Why is radiotherapy important?

For many patients radiotherapy cures, or helps to cure, their cancer. And for others it plays a crucial role in slowing the growth of tumours and improving the patient’s quality of life.

My treatment was actually a complete breeze – certainly after chemo. People need radiotherapy so they can spend more quality time with their friends and families

– Elizabeth, Ambassador and cancer survivor

It’s also an area where we fund cutting edge research, which has been at the heart of tremendous advances over the last decade.

Radiotherapy is now an incredibly sophisticated and effective treatment. But while this evidence has grown, we also know that many patients miss out on modern radiotherapy treatments.

And awareness of the benefits of radiotherapy is also low among the general public – something we think needs to change.

Radiotherapy can sometimes be overlooked, not getting the recognition, and importantly the investment, it deserves. So we’ve made a big effort over many years to raise its profile and push government for improvements so that more patients can benefit.

And this is something that patients care about too.

“People have some funny ideas about radiotherapy, and see it as something sinister or scary,” says Elizabeth, one of our Cancer Campaigns Ambassadors.

“My treatment was actually a complete breeze – certainly after chemo. People need radiotherapy so they can spend more quality time with their friends and families, and we must all campaign to make sure people get it when they need it most.

“It’s clever stuff, and it works.”

What has been holding the radiotherapy service back?

The most common form of radiotherapy uses x-rays, produced by a machine called a linear accelerator, to target and destroy cancer cells. This is known as external beam radiotherapy.

Radiotherapy machines should be replaced every 10 years. But they’re expensive, costing up to £2m each for the latest versions. And while radiotherapy is very cost effective in the long term, over recent years hospitals have struggled to replace old machines due to the high cost up front.

This lack of investment in new machines is a major reason why some patients are not getting treatments that are best for them, as the NHS has not kept pace with advances that new technology brings.

For example, around half of patients receiving radiotherapy that has the potential to cure them should have a modern type called Intensity Modulated Radiotherapy (IMRT). But right now, the proportion who do receive this treatment is under 40 per cent.

IMRT is the best form of radiotherapy for some types of cancer, such as head and neck cancer. That’s because it targets tumours more precisely, helping patients avoid side-effects such as dry mouth or trouble swallowing.

Whether a patient gets IMRT or not can vary depending on where they live in England – in some hospitals around 20 per cent get it, in others more than 70 per cent. This is obviously cause for serious concern and something we hope this investment will address.

Outdated machines also limit research. To make new discoveries, researchers and doctors need to be using the latest equipment.

And that’s another reason why today’s investment is so important.

Money well spent

Crucially, this money will help fund the much needed state-of-the-art radiotherapy machines that will replace outdated ones in cancer centres across England.

The latest figures we’ve seen indicate that a whopping 90 machines need replacing by the end of next year out of a total of around 260. So you can see that this is no mean feat. And it’s not cheap.

Replacing the machines will mean that more patients can benefit from these treatments. And the new machines will also help support research to improve and advance radiotherapy treatments even further.

What next?

At the moment there isn’t much detail about how this money will be handed out. So we’ll be keeping a close eye on how this happens.

Radiotherapy is sometimes mistakenly thought of as old fashioned but new techniques have made it an even more important part of cancer treatment

– Sir Harpal Kumar, Cancer Research UK

But one thing is for sure, this is great news for patients.

Our chief executive, Sir Harpal Kumar, said the money “will change the face of cancer treatment across England.”

“Modern radiotherapy plays a vital part in curing cancer for thousands of patients and the technological advances in recent years has been immense,” he adds.

“Radiotherapy is sometimes mistakenly thought of as old fashioned but new techniques have made it an even more important part of cancer treatment.

“This has been at the top of Cancer Research UK’s wish list for many years as well as being a key priority in the cancer strategy.”

And today’s investment in state-of-the-art radiotherapy machines will be a big boost to improving cancer survival for thousands in England.

Emlyn Samuel is a senior policy manager at Cancer Research UK

Update 03/04/17: NHS England has released more information about which hospitals in England will receive new radiotherapy machines, and has set out a timeline for when the machines will be up and running.

  • This investment is for the NHS in England only. The Scottish Government regularly invests in the latest radiotherapy equipment and recently committed a further £50m in radiotherapy, including £39m on new machines, over the next 5 years. In Wales, recent investment in new machines in Cardiff is good, but we would like to see a more joined up approach to ensure new machines are equally distributed across the country. In Northern Ireland a new radiotherapy centre in Altnagevin is being built so more patients can get these treatments.