Oscar Mills, aged nine, is being treated with pioneering proton beam therapy for the next six weeks in Manchester for a rare brain tumour. And he is delighted his beloved pet rabbits have come along for the ride too.
Oscar and his parents, from Dorking, are staying with friends nearby, whilst he undergoes 30 sessions of the revolutionary therapy – which is currently only available on the NHS in the UK at The Christie, a specialist cancer treatment centre in Manchester.
Oscar was diagnosed with a papillary tumour of the pineal gland – a tumour in the central nervous system in his brain – in March after suffering from painful headaches. A scan and a biopsy confirmed the diagnosis and within a few short weeks, he underwent an operation to remove the tumour.
Mum Sarah said: “There is no doubt the diagnosis was a huge shock. To be told your son has a brain tumour was very difficult to deal with. Fortunately we were told the outlook was good and were guided through what would happen.”
Oscar underwent surgery at St George’s Hospital in London and then an intensive period of rehabilitation to regain his movement and speech. Initially doctors were not sure how much of the tumour they would be able to remove, but fortunately they were able to remove the full mass. Oscar than had to have a lengthy stay in hospital before doctors recommended he go onto have further radiotherapy to ensure any small traces of the tumour were destroyed.
Following assessment by a panel of specialists, it was decided Oscar would be an ideal candidate for proton beam therapy (PBT) – a specialist form of radiotherapy that targets certain cancers very precisely, reducing side-effects. It targets tumours with less damage to surrounding healthy tissue and is particularly appropriate for certain cancers in children who are at risk of lasting damage to tissues that are still growing.
The Christie is the first NHS high-energy PBT centre in the UK as part of a £250m national programme. A second PBT centre is currently being built at University College London Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and is due to open in 2020. When complete the two centres will each treat up to 750 patients every year.
Oscar’s dad Alan added: “At first we thought we might be heading to Germany, but when Oscar was accepted by The Christie for treatment, it was a huge relief. We knew we’d still be away from home, but being in the UK and being able to stay with friends has made it so much easier.”
Any patients attending The Christie for PBT who do not live locally, are provided with free family accommodation in a serviced apartment in Manchester city centre for the duration of their preparation and treatment. Oscar and his family however chose to stay with friends who live nearby in Cheadle Hulme – meaning Oscar’s precious rabbits Geoffrey and Cinnamon could join them on their travels.
Sarah added: “Having the rabbits with us has been a real comfort to Oscar. He is coping very well with the treatment, so far with minimal side effects which is a huge relief.”
A PBT patient’s treatment course is typically six weeks long with individual treatment sessions around 30 minutes for five days a week. Much of the 30 minute treatment session is spent positioning the patient properly and checking the position with imaging in the treatment room, with just two to three minutes of that being when the beam targets the tumour. And Oscar is now aiming to beat the shortest record for treatment, which currently stands at 24 minutes.
He said: “I’m having 30 sessions in total and I really want to get the record for being the fastest. It’s a little bit scary the first time you see the gantry, but I’m used to it now and there are lots of people there to help me.”
In between hospital appointments, Oscar and his family have kept occupied with visits to Chester Zoo, Jodrell Bank and even a day at The Ashes at Old Trafford as Oscar is a huge cricket fan.
Consultant clinical oncologist Dr Daniel Saunders is leading Oscar’s care at The Christie. He said: “With PBT, compared to conventional radiotherapy, there is less dose to surrounding normal tissues and less risk of permanent long term effects of treatment. This is particularly important for children and teenagers, who will survive decades after treatment and are at much greater risk of serious long term effects of treatment than adults. For Oscar, in comparison to conventional radiotherapy, PBT should carry a lower risk of some important long term side effects of treatment, particularly effects on short term memory and learning ability and the risk over the next eight decades of the radiation causing other tumours.”
The Christie NHS Foundation Trust was the first specialist trust to be rated as ‘Outstanding’ twice (in 2016 and 2018) by the health regulator the Care Quality Commission (CQC). It referred to The Christie as ‘a leader in cancer care’ and ‘a pioneer in developing innovative solutions to cancer care.’ The CQC praised the Trust’s staff which it said ‘go the extra mile to meet the needs of patients and their families’ and that they were ‘exceptionally kind and caring.’ In 2017, the CQC rated The Christie as the best specialist trust in the country, and one of the top three trusts overall in England.