Swansea boy receives pioneering proton beam therapy for rare throat cancer

Press release posted 04 June 2019

An eight year old boy who has been diagnosed with a rare form of throat cancer is being treated with proton beam therapy (PBT) at The Christie hospital in Manchester.

McKenzie John, from Swansea began treatment at the end of May after being diagnosed with a nasopharyngeal tumour. About 250 people a year in the UK are diagnosed with the cancer, which affects the part of the throat connecting the mouth and the nose.

He first complained of a painful neck in November while showering. After multiple tests failed to reveal anything, it was an MRI scan in March that revealed the tumour.

McKenzie spent four days in an induced coma before being transferred to an oncology ward at the Noah's Ark Children's Hospital in Cardiff, where he had emergency chemotherapy. He was then referred to the UK’s only NHS high energy proton beam therapy centre at The Christie in Manchester for further treatment.

McKenzie’s mum, Rhian, said: “He’s had a really tough time but McKenzie is in high spirits and we are pleased he is having proton beam therapy at The Christie.

“He's always been a strong and healthy kid, and he never made a fuss or tried to skip school, so it was unusual for him to complain of this neck pain.

"Whenever he tried to tip his head back to wash his hair, he'd say it really hurt. Since then he has had chemotherapy and lost his hair but he’s a strong boy and we know he is in good hands.”

PBT is 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 programme for a national PBT service funded by NHS England. A second PBT centre is also currently being built at University College London Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and is due to open in 2020.

To ensure consistency of service, once the two UK PBT centres are operational, some patients will continue to be sent abroad for treatment until both centres have fully developed their capacity of up to 750 patients a year.

PBT has been offered overseas to NHS patients who are eligible for treatment in England since 2008 in a programme that has to date supported over 1000 patients. However, for many cancer patients, travelling abroad is difficult, particularly if they are less well or require other treatments such as surgery and chemotherapy. The trip abroad can also result in families being separated during a very stressful time.

Whilst receiving treatment at The Christie, McKenzie will be supported by a play therapy team and through his ongoing schoolwork by the centre’s dedicated education team.

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.

Consultant clinical oncologist Rovel Colaco, who is leading McKenzie’s care at The Christie, said: “When compared to conventional radiotherapy, proton therapy can result in lower doses to surrounding normal tissues. This is particularly important in young children such as McKenzie who are still growing and in whom critical organs including the brain are still developing. 

“In McKenzie’s case proton therapy will likely reduce his risk of developing certain permanent long term side effects from radiation such as short term memory loss, cognitive dysfunction and secondary cancers.”

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.

The Christie PBT centre will include a dedicated research room (funded by The Christie charity) to investigate how PBT can be delivered more precisely and effectively, meaning better treatments for patients and fewer side effects. A team of world leading research scientists, engineers and clinicians will work together to look at how protons interact with different tissues, where exactly they deposit their dose and how precisely they cause biological damage to the tumours.

The Christie NHS Foundation Trust has been ranked ‘Outstanding’ by the health regulator the Care Quality Commission (CQC) which referred to it as ‘exceptional’ and ‘a leader in its field’. It not only commended the Trust for its effectiveness and care, but highlighted its work in shaping the future of cancer care and noted the reach and influence of its clinical research projects. The CQC also rated The Christie the best specialist trust in the country, and one of the top three trusts overall in England