Nurse Barbara Green is back at work in the outpatients’ department at Burnley General Hospital, just months after being sent by The Christie for groundbreaking proton beam therapy (PBT) in the USA to treat her third cancer in 10 years.
Barbara, 56, from Padiham in Lancashire, can’t believe she was back in uniform and working her full timetable only three months after her return from Jacksonville, Florida where she was treated daily with PBT for nine weeks for a rare cancer of the spine which had left her in severe pain and on long-term sick.
PBT is a specialist form of radiotherapy that targets cancers very precisely, increasing success rates and 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 organs that are still growing.
It has been offered overseas to NHS patients who are eligible for treatment in England since 2008 in a programme that has to date supported approximately 1,000 patients. From August 2018 The Christie will begin treating patients in Manchester as the UK’s first NHS high-energy centre. University College London Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust (UCLH) will follow in summer 2020.
Barbara has nothing but praise for the treatment she had in the USA. She says: “Everyone was so kind and everything was sorted so well with every ‘i’ dotted and ‘t’ crossed. I started to feel better halfway through my treatment - I don’t know whether it was the sunshine, or the fact that I knew something was being done to treat me. Without the PBT I would not be back at work.”
She had already had breast cancer in 2007 and a double mastectomy in 2012, when in 2016 she began having back pain after yoga classes. Barbara and her GP put it down to sciatica, so she was shocked when an oncologist at Burnley General told her that scans revealed a mass on her spine that might be a rare chordoma.
“To be told I had cancer for the third time was absolutely the worst thing,” says Barbara.
“The first two occasions had been bad but I had managed to remain positive, but the third time I was in total despair. I just wanted to crawl in a corner and disappear.”
As a nurse, she knew surgery carried the risk of leaving her doubly incontinent and in a wheelchair. Then specialists at Royal Preston Hospital referred her to the Royal Orthopaedic Hospital in Birmingham, where she was first told about PBT in the USA. Barbara was then referred to The Christie, where her consultant Dr Catherine Coyle, informed her that she fulfilled the criteria for PBT treatment at Jacksonville in Florida, and that it would be paid for by the NHS.
Barbara and her husband Kevin knew this offered her the best chance of living a normal life, so they seized the opportunity. Although Kevin was granted leave from the engineering company where he worked to accompany her to America, he worried throughout the trip about taking so much time off, and they both worried about their cat, who had to be put in a cattery for three months.
“I can’t praise the care we had in the USA enough.” she says. “But going to the USA is just such a long way for such a long time. Having to travel there just added to the stress. If I’d been able to have the PBT in Manchester it would have been so much easier. I’m so glad that people will soon be able to have what I had without having to travel abroad.”
Consultant Dr Catherine Coyle said: “Barbara’s case was a rare and complex one requiring the cooperation of clinicians from more than one hospital trust. Not everyone with a sarcoma can be helped by proton beam therapy, but we are delighted that Barbara was suitable to receive it, given how close it was to her bladder, bowel and delicate nerve systems. PBT treatment has given her a very good chance of tumour control without the side effects from surgery.
“The Christie PBT facility will mean that patients like Barbara who are in pain and feeling very anxious and stressed, won’t have to undergo long plane flights to receive treatment thousands of miles from home, but can receive care closer to home with the added support of family and friends close by.”
Over the last century, The Christie radiotherapy department has pioneered many advances in radiotherapy. It already leads in advanced radiotherapy, delivering more complex treatments than any other centre in the country. The introduction of proton beam therapy will allow it to continue to make advances in this area and improve patient treatment and care.
As well as welcoming PBT to The Christie next year, the hospital is also just one of seven sites in the world to host a pioneering MR-linac radiotherapy machine. It combines magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanning and tumour- busting radiotherapy treatment in one hi-tech package. The machine, which will start treating patients next year will precisely locate tumours, tailor the shape of the x-ray beams in real time, and lock on to the tumour during treatment – even when tumour tissue is moving during treatment e.g. in the lung as a patient breathes.