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Improving life for women with breast cancer

Breast cancer is the most common type of cancer in the UK, and rates are increasing. Around 50,000 women are diagnosed every year. There's a good chance you know someone who has been affected by it. Maybe you have been affected yourself.

The majority of patients require radiotherapy to the breast. There are a lot of women going through radiotherapy for breast cancer, and this makes up a large part of the workload of NHS radiotherapy departments.

Our health technology experts have been working on projects that will improve the treatment of women with breast cancer, relieve the pressure on clinicians' time, and potentially make huge cost savings for the NHS.

Making radiotherapy more comfortable and effective

Researcher Dr Heidi Probst has been working on a support device to make breast cancer patients' radiotherapy more comfortable, more dignified – and more effective.

'Since I first trained as a radiographer, technology has moved on immensely,' she explains. 'But how we position the patient hasn’t kept pace with the developments in radiotherapy technology.'

At the moment, women lie naked from the waist upwards and the radiographer positions them manually for their radiotherapy treatment.

Heidi says, 'A patient has at least 15 treatments across three weeks, and you have to make sure the position of the breast is the same each time so that the radiation distributed across the breast is the same each time the patient attends.

'This is important to make sure the patient has a good cosmetic outcome following treatment, and also to minimise side effects to the lungs and heart (in women treated for a left breast cancer) later in life.'

Previous attempts to meet this challenge have proven undignified at best, and ineffective at worst

Heidi is working with colleagues from Sheffield Hallam University and Sheffield Teaching Hospitals on a new support device that will

  • provide accuracy and reproducibility in breast position
  • reduce the radiation dose received by normal tissue such as the lungs and heart
  • preserves the patient's dignity and modesty

The team Heidi has assembled includes product designers, engineers, clinicians and an industrial partner. They have held focus groups with patients, interviewed oncologists and sought views from radiographers. Medipex has conducted a market analysis that showed there was a definite need for a product in this area.

Now they are testing their designs on specially created breast phantoms, realistic models which can be imaged the same way as normal breast tissue. They are also using surface scanning with healthy women to test the product is able to immobilise the breast tissue and reproduce breast positioning on repeated instances.

'The support device is on its third prototype, and following a series of further safety tests it will be tested on a small sample of patients,' says Heidi. 'After that, we hope if the product works well to manufacture the device and see it adopted as standard throughout the NHS.'

This project is funded by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Invention for Innovation fund (project code II-LA-0214-20001).

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