Advanced radiotherapy ‘must play central role’ in clearing Covid’s cancer backlog

Urgent investment is needed in advanced forms of radiotherapy so the high-tech treatment can play a central role in clearing the backlog in NHS cancer care that has built up during the pandemic. Leading cancer experts are calling for the Government to address gaps in funding for high-precision radiotherapy and to do more to overcome the public’s scepticism of radiotherapy as an ‘outdated’ form of treatment.

Experts believe NHS patients are missing out on potentially life-saving treatments that could play a huge role in coping with the pressures of the pandemic, because of under-investment in new radiotherapy technologies that target treatment more precisely at tumours. They warn that more must be done to overcome radiotherapy’s ‘PR problem’.

The Institute of Cancer Research, London, is now calling for increased funding and a nationally coordinated approach to support the delivery of the latest radiotherapy research advances after a survey of more than 2,500 people showed widespread misconceptions about this type of treatment.

NHS patients currently face a postcode lottery across the UK in access to the latest radiotherapy trials, technologies and approaches. Lack of up-to-date equipment, properly trained staff or support for clinical trials restricts access to advanced, high-precision radiotherapy in many parts of the country.

That leaves the NHS in a poor position to take advantage of the huge potential of advanced forms of radiotherapy to offer curative treatment during the pandemic while putting less pressure on hospitals than surgery and avoiding the immunosuppression that occurs with chemotherapy.

The Institute of Cancer Research (ICR) surveyed 2,216 people from the general population and 505 cancer patients to help shape recommendations for improving access to radiotherapy.

Only 8 per cent of respondents from the general population considered radiotherapy to be cutting edge – compared with 50 per cent for targeted drugs, 43 per cent for immunotherapy and 58 per cent for proton beam therapy.

Radiotherapy’s ‘PR problem’

That perception of radiotherapy as old-fashioned means few people think it should be an area of focus for the NHS – only 12 per cent of survey respondents thought it should be prioritised for funding

Yet research over the last 20 years, much of it led by the ICR and The Royal Marsden, has been highly successful at targeting radiation more precisely at tumours using advanced imaging, and delivering radiotherapy in streamlined regimens. These advances have increased cure rates and reduced side effects and the burden on patients.

Today, radiotherapy is one of the most successful and cost-effective treatments for cancer and plays a part in the treatment of around 40 per cent of all cancer patients cured of their disease.

Patients are missing out or traveling unacceptable distances

But new techniques are often restricted to major specialist centres and, as a result, patients are either missing out or having to travel long distances to receive treatment or participate in clinical trials.

According to the ICR survey, almost a quarter of patients overall had to travel more than 20 miles for their radiotherapy – including 20 per cent of those living in urban areas and 41 per cent of those in rural areas.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, radiotherapy may be a safer treatment option than chemotherapy or surgery in certain cases while the incidence of coronavirus remains high – as it often involves fewer and shorter visits to hospital and therefore less exposure to the virus.