Policy briefing

Marie Curie Legacy Campaign on the benefits of radiotherapy

The treatment is being undervalued in cancer care, experts say

Radiotherapy is being undervalued in cancer treatment, experts say

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Essential information

While half of people with cancer in Europe can benefit from treatment, at least one in four do not receive it. In the UK, the situation is even worse with one in three going without. The warning comes from a report published by the Marie Curie Legacy Campaign.

The report, Radiotherapy: seizing the opportunity in cancer care, says radiotherapy can offer huge benefits. It can be used on its own, or to complement or enhance the effects of other treatments – for example to shrink or control a cancer before and after surgery.

It points to evidence showing 40% of all cancers successfully treated are eliminated by radiotherapy, either alone or acting in combination with other types of treatment. Post-operative radiotherapy for people with breast cancer, for example, has been shown to halve the rate of recurrence compared with surgery alone.

Radiotherapy also has a major role in alleviating symptoms and improving quality of life. For example, it is the gold standard treatment to relieve bone pain caused by the cancer spreading.

How the treatment is advancing

Technological improvements are also enabling advances, the report says. More targeted radiation has benefited people with head and neck cancer in reducing side effects, such as swallowing problems.

Treatment times have also been reduced by exploring the benefits of fewer, larger daily doses of radiation over a shorter period of time, known as hypofraction. Meanwhile, treatments such as immunotherapy, can be aided by radiotherapy. Combining the two has been shown to improve outcomes.

But despite all these benefits, the report says radiotherapy seems to be left on the sidelines of health policy. There are shortages of high-quality equipment and staff, while the wider cancer team shows ‘limited understanding’ of the potential of radiotherapy.

Implications for nurses

Nurses do not deliver radiotherapy, but they are part of the wider multidisciplinary team caring for patients on their cancer journey, meaning they are involved in the care of the patient before and after radiotherapy.

The report argues this puts nurses in a crucial position – in integrating it into treatment plans, encouraging patients to have the treatment and managing the side effects. They could also use their position to champion the benefits of radiotherapy to others they work with.

Expert comment

Sara Faithfull is professor of cancer nursing practice at the University of Surrey

‘Radiotherapy is the Cinderella of cancer care. There is such a big focus on new cancer drugs – immunotherapy and chemotherapy – that we have started to take radiotherapy for granted.

'The problem for nurses is that we don’t get any training in radiotherapy. At the University of Surrey, we have actually introduced a short session on radiotherapy in the Systemic Anti-Cancer Therapy (SACT) training so nurses can understand how it links with systemic treatment.

'We need to be aware of the radiotherapy benefits so we can plan treatment, champion, and help people cope with the side effects afterwards.’


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