Could Light Therapy Beat Cancer in a Single Day? Good Health
Byline: JEROME BURNE
A CANCER treatment that is less invasive and gruelling than conventional procedures - and cheaper - is the Holy Grail of oncology research. So imagine if that treatment already existed.
The fact is, it does - but few people know about it and few hospitals offer it.
Photodynamic therapy uses tumour-killing drugs that are activated by light.
With skin cancer, first a cream is rubbed onto the affected area, then a light shone onto the cancer for 20 minutes. This creates a form of oxygen which destroys the tumour. The same technique can be used to treat cancers inside the body, if the area can be accessed with an endoscope (a flexible tube) containing a light.
The patient needs just one treatment - unlike the repeated doses required for radiotherapy or chemotherapy, and the side-effects (pain, swelling and nausea) are far milder.
Photodynamic therapy is also cheaper - doctors offering the treatment claim it costs less than half the price of chemotherapy. But despite its promise as the next generation of cancer treatment, photodynamic therapy is not widely available. There are just seven hospitals in the UK offering it as a regular treatment, even though it is licensed by the National Institute for Clinical Excellence for cancers of the skin, head, neck and oesophagus.
Now the veteran broadcaster Sir David Frost has agreed to help an appeal to increase awareness about the treatment, and to raise [pounds sterling]50million to fund research.
'I can't understand why it isn't standard treatment,' he says. 'We are always reading about new cancer treatments that are so expensive there's a postcode lottery for them.
'Well here's one that works brilliantly and is far cheaper - yet patients are still having to fight to get it because cancer specialists often don't recommend it.' Sir David became involved in the appeal following the experience of Professor James Knowlson - Samuel Beckett's biographer.
Knowlson had already had surgery and radiotherapy for a mouth tumour, when his cancer returned a year later.
'More radiotherapy was not an option because it would have destroyed my cheek, while further surgery would have involved cutting away a considerable part of it, leaving me permanently scarred,' said Knowlson.
'I would have to have had a skin transplant, and nerves controlling my mouth could have been destroyed. I would probably not have been able to produce saliva.' Then an American specialist told him about the National Medical Laser Centre at University College Hospital, in London, where a team were using photodynamic therapy.
'This saved me from the most dreadful surgery,' says Knowlson. 'Today I speak and eat normally.' That was eight years ago, prompting Sir David's question: 'Why is it taking so long for this treatment to get the recognition it deserves?
'I've heard of areas of the country where out of a dozen patients suitable for photodynamic therapy, perhaps only two will be offered it. That's terrible when you consider the huge difference in terms of what happens to them.' This difference can be seen, for example, when comparing photodynamic therapy with conventional treatment for Barrett's oesophagus - a form of cancer.
THE oesophagus is the tube that runs from the mouth to the stomach. If you suffer from chronic heartburn, the acid that leaks from the stomach and into the end of the oesophagus can damage cells there, and they become precancerous. …