Pioneering cancer treatment comes to Berkshire

PUBLISHED: 11:47 05 November 2019

Chief Medical Officer Professor Karol Sikora, Centre Manager Laura Geer, and proton beam therapy patient Timon Colegrove

Chief Medical Officer Professor Karol Sikora, Centre Manager Laura Geer, and proton beam therapy patient Timon Colegrove


Sarah Rodi spoke to the experts who are transforming the landscape for advanced cancer care in the UK

In August this year, the Rutherford Cancer Centre Thames Valley announced the opening of its new proton beam therapy suite, to meet growing demand for the pioneering treatment.

The Centre in Reading is the first such facility in South East England and will play a crucial role in advancing cancer care in the region.

The Centre has been operational since last year, providing conventional cancer treatments, but in August, the centre began treating its first patients with proton beams.

Proton beam therapy is a type of radiotherapy that delivers heavily charged protons in a more targeted manner to reduce damage to peripheral tissue and organs. "Its main advantage is that its accuracy means it can help reduce long-term side effects. The collateral damage is much less," says Professor Karol Sikora, Chief Medical Officer of Rutherford Health plc, which operates the Rutherford Cancer Centres. "Proton beam therapy uses high-energy proton beams (radiation) to the precise area needing treatment, but we can determine where the beam stops. So, for example, if there is a tumour in the centre of the lung, we can target just that, accurately, and prevent the risk of radiation reaching surrounding healthy tissue.

"UK cancer care has made major strides over the past year thanks to a complementary mix of private and public facilities, but rising demand for precision radiotherapy means that there is still some way to go. Based on treatment rates in other advanced European countries, the UK may need approximately 18 proton beam therapy facilities in the years to come.

"Unfortunately, the NHS is very restrictive with this treatment. The NHS plan calls for children to have proton beam therapy as most children's cancer is curable, so why should they live with the side effects of radiotherapy? They use the therapy for those under 25 and for limited types of cancer.

"We are opening our centres to expand this care to benefit more people. We use the therapy with an intent to cure. Our first centre opened in Newport, and we opened a second in Northumberland last year. Now we've opened a third at Shinfield in Reading, which caters to the M4/M40 band of people. And next year, we will open our fourth in Liverpool.

"We aim to treat 500 people in a year. The treatment only lasts 15-20 minutes a time, depending on the type of cancer, and for two to six weeks. But it is very expensive. The treatment costs £50,000-£60,000 per person.We're hoping this cost may come down in time, if we can reduce the amount of sessions needed."

I, for one, had never heard of proton beam therapy until I was invited to the opening of The Rutherford's latest proton beam therapy suite. It's certainly a milestone for advanced cancer care and creating a better future for cancer patients. - All centres offer proton beam therapy to medically insured private patients, self-paying patients and NHS patients where the Rutherford is commissioned to provide these services.

Everyone has a right to know

Timon Cosgrove was diagnosed with prostate cancer in December 2017, following a full private medical check with his insurance provider. He has four grown-up children and got married in April this year.

"I spent 37 years of my life growing a business," he says. "I grew it to the point where I had 70 employees, and then I decided to sell it. I wouldn't say I'm retired now, but I'm taking a break!"

Timon was just approaching the sale of his business in 2017, aged 56, when he decided to have a full medical check. "I had the check and felt fine - in fact, I'd never felt better," he says.

But the check showed he had a slightly raised prostate-specific antigen. "It was 5.2 when it shouldn't have been greater than 4," he says.

"It all seemed a little strange as I had no symptoms. I was referred to a consultant but I honestly thought it was probably nothing. The consultant said they just wanted to do a scan to make sure. I had an MRI and they found a shadow on my prostate, but still I thought it probably wasn't anything. The consultant said they'd do a biopsy, and if everything was fine, I'd receive a call within seven days. It was very surreal; I felt fine. I felt good. I was about to get married!"

But Timon didn't hear anything, so went along to the pre-arranged follow-up appointment. "My fiancée and I went in and sat down, and the consultant said: 'Sorry to say, Mr Cosgrove, but you have cancer.' It was a blow. I couldn't believe it. The consultant went on to say: 'However, you can have a radical nerve-sparing prostatectomy. But I should warn you there's a 40% of incontinence and a 40% chance of impotence.' I was shocked. I had fallen in love and was about to get married. This was devastating," Timon says.

"The consultant went on to tell me that I may be able to have radioactive therapy, where they zap the prostate, but again there was a 40% chance of incontinence and a 40% chance of impotence. But he said I didn't have to make up my mind immediately..."

Timon left the room feeling dazed and confused, thinking there had been some kind of mistake. He and his fiancée went away on holiday and did a bit of research. When they got home, Timon went along to a local Cancer Support Group. "There were about 60 people there, all men in their late 60s, 70s and 80s. There was a raffle for some chocolate biscuits and they announced there were free incontinence pads at the back! I couldn't believe it," says Timon. "I was in my 50s with a young attitude; I couldn't believe I was sat here talking about incontinence pads. But there was a speaker there that night, Professor Karol Sikora, and he was talking about proton beam therapy and how its accuracy means that it can help reduce unwelcome side effects, like incontinence and impotence.

"Having discovered this, I read about it and learnt people had been travelling to Prague to have proton beam therapy. I spoke to someone who'd had the treatment and had no side effects. Meanwhile, some of my old friends who had prostate cancer and radiotherapy told me they had been left impotent. I felt this was too big a risk for me. I had an insight into what it's like to lose your libido when I had hormone therapy to stunt my prostate to make it an easier target. And you can't underestimate what impotence does. Intimacy is crucial to someone like me. When you don't have those urges, you feel less attractive and less confident.

"So I decided to track down Karol Sikora, one of the world's foremost experts on cancer and a leading oncologist, and when I did, he told me to send over my scans."

Karol Sikora is one of the co-founders of the Rutherford Cancer Centres, and he sent Timon to the Centre in Wales. "A quarter of a billion pounds had been spent on the centre, and it seemed like some kind of space-age technology. The consultant there, Dr Jason Lester, said I was treatable," says Timon. "So I moved to Wales for a month. I had 20 fractions Monday to Friday, then had the weekend off. It was a non-invasive, gentle experience. I knew it was an experimental treatment, but I was committed to it. I hung all my hopes and dreams on it. The only symptom I had was in the last week of my treatment, when I felt like I really needed to go to the toilet and I just had to go, but this cleared up within a week or so."

Timon had a three, six and nine-month check-up, and the results were good. "My prostate-specific antigen was 0.2; negligible. It was amazing news," he says. "Now I'm back to my normal, vigorous self, which is so important. I am cancer-free and eager to spread the word about proton beam therapy for others.

Everyone has a right to know about it. Clinicians and consultants have a moral obligation to share it. I feel incredibly lucky that I stumbled upon it. Thank goodness for Karol and Mike Moran for creating the Rutherford Centres. It is an expensive treatment... but if your life is on the line, you're willing to borrow money or even sell your house. What's the point in any of it if you don't have your health?"

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