New cancer treatment to begin in Colchester

23 March 2012

A new type of radiotherapy for patients with cancer will begin at Essex County Hospital on Monday (26 March).

Intensity-Modulated Radiation Therapy (IMRT) will increase survival rates and also improve the quality of life for patients by reducing the side effects associated with standard radiotherapy.

The first IMRT at Essex County Hospital will be given to a patient with tongue cancer from the Chelmsford area.

Initially, it will be used only for patients with a head or neck cancer (eg cancer of the tongue, larynx (voice box) or pharynx (part of the throat situated immediately behind the mouth or nasal cavity)). However, it is expected that IMRT will in the future become available for some patients with other types of cancer, including prostate, breast and lung.

Colchester Hospital University NHS Foundation Trust, which runs Essex County Hospital and Colchester General Hospital, recently invested £288,000 on specialist software which enables clinicians to plan an individual's IMRT with precision and accuracy.

Celine Driscoll, Specialist Radiographer, said: "We are really excited about this development in Colchester.

"It will have a positive impact on certain groups of patients but it must be stressed it is not appropriate for all patients with head and neck cancer.

"In certain clinical situations we know it means we can target a higher dose of radiation precisely at the tumour by modulating - or controlling - the intensity of the radiation beam while minimising the dose to the surrounding healthy tissue.

"Patients benefit in two ways - firstly, the higher dose means the tumour is more likely to shrink or be eliminated and, secondly, because there is less damage to the healthy tissue, the likelihood of side effects is reduced."

The first patient will have IMRT at Essex County Hospital for five days a week for six weeks, starting on Monday (26 March), she added.

Because higher doses of radiation can be used safely, IMRT will sometimes reduce the number of visits a radiotherapy patient will have to make to the hospital.

Ms Driscoll said the most common side effect of standard radiotherapy for head and neck cancer was a dry mouth caused by damage to the salivary glands, which some patients would then experience for the rest of their lives.

Treatment is carefully planned using 3D CT scan images of the patient together with computerised dose calculations to find the dose intensity pattern that best matches the tumour shape.

During the 15 or so minutes of IMRT, the patient is required to lie still on a treatment couch while the linear accelerator (often shortened to "linac") delivers multiple beams of radiation to the tumour from various directions.

Now that IMRT is about to begin at Essex County Hospital, clinicians there hope it will mean they will be able to take part in more national and international research.

Next month, a planning application will be made to build a multi-million pound radiotherapy centre at Colchester General Hospital to serve the populations of both north east and mid Essex.

Work is scheduled to start on site in July and be completed by December 2013. It will expand the provision of radiotherapy in Colchester and will result in the closure of the current radiotherapy department at Essex County Hospital.

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