“You know that you’re doing something that is going to save somebody’s life”

World Cancer Day 2021 - Shelley Blane 

Shelley Blane is a Medical Physicist and Course Leader of our BSc (Hons) Radiography (Radiotherapy and Oncology) degree here at AECC University College.

She has an MSc in Radiation Physics and is a HCPC-registered Therapeutic Radiographer and Clinical Scientist with over 27 years’ experience in Radiotherapy.

To mark World Cancer Day (4 Feb 2021), we spoke to Shelley about what the day means to her, why the role of a Therapeutic Radiographer is so important in cancer care, the impact of Covid-19 on Radiotherapy, and what makes the Radiography degree at AECC special.

World Cancer Day

“The aim of World Cancer Day, as well as raising awareness of the disease, is about promoting equality in cancer care – and that’s something I’m really passionate about. Not just equality in the UK, it’s about worldwide equality and the fact that everybody should be able to receive the cancer care that they deserve.

“As well as Radiotherapy, it’s having access to the right imaging, the right surgery and chemotherapy. We’re still in a situation worldwide where there are people dying of cancerous tumours that they wouldn’t die of if they were being treated in the UK.

“The aim of the Union of International Cancer Control is to get that quality of care to all patients. That of course is a huge undertaking and means huge investment in highly expensive technology, medication, and training for Radiographers, Medical Physicists and Oncologists so treatment can take place. 

“Another really important aspect of the cancer pathway is education: ensuring the general public has some knowledge of the signs and symptoms of cancer, how to prevent cancer, and that they are able to visit a doctor as soon as they discover symptoms.”

A career in Radiotherapy

“I always knew that I wanted to work in healthcare, but I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do. Someone mentioned Radiotherapy and at that point, it had just become a degree course.

“I don’t think I 100% knew exactly what I was going to be doing, but I liked the idea of working with cancer patients. What really drew me to Radiotherapy was the fact that you see your patient every day for their treatment period. You form a really lovely relationship with your patient and you help them with what they’re going through.

“They’ve got a lot to deal with, but the relationship that they build with you means they feel they can tell you what they are worried about that day. As a Therapeutic Radiographer, you’re supporting patients with all the things that are around the disease, as well as fighting the disease itself.

“According to the statistics, one in two people in the UK will suffer from cancer in their lifetime and approximately 50% - 60% of cancer patients will be treated with Radiotherapy. That might be in conjunction with surgery or chemotherapy, or on its own: depending on the type of cancer. This means Therapeutic Radiographers are really integral to the cancer pathway and curing patients of cancer.

“For patients, it can be quite comforting to come into a Radiotherapy department. Suddenly, you are surrounded by people who are going through the same thing. For a lot of patients, it’s somewhere that they don’t have to be the cancer patient because all the patients there have cancer. They share what they’re going through and that’s beneficial for them.

“I think there’s a lot of misconceptions that a Radiotherapy department is a depressing place to work. Of course, like in all healthcare professions, there will be times that are depressing, but in general, Radiotherapy departments are caring, nice places to work.

“At the end of the day, you know that you’re doing something that is going to save somebody’s life. Who wouldn’t want a job where at the end of the day, they can go home and know that they’ve made that kind of profound difference to another individual?”

Impact of Covid-19

“I’m in awe of the Radiographers on the front line; their resilience during the pandemic has been inspiring. They are still treating cancer patients and still training our placement students.

“Luckily, Radiotherapy is a fairly isolated department within a hospital. We have had to consider infection control and implement PPE, which has made the job a bit more difficult and time consuming.

“The main issue really has been getting patients to the point where they are coming in for their Radiotherapy. We’ve seen that some surgeries have been cancelled and patients generally have to go through other procedures before they come into a Radiotherapy department. I think there will be a backlog of cases, as a result.

“I think a lot of people will have put off going to their GP with symptoms because they are afraid of going into an environment where there is Covid-19. As a result, they won’t be getting the diagnosis that they would otherwise be getting until later.

“We could potentially be in a situation where patients are coming in at a later stage of their treatment, which will affect their prognosis. The later the stage of cancer, the less chance we have of being able to cure it.

“What’s more, patients are having to come into the department without a comforter or carer, which could be quite daunting for some patients.”

Radiography at AECC University College

“Our course really stands out from other Radiography courses because we are based here at AECC University College. We’re part of an institution that specialises in healthcare courses. In my experience, at other institutions, Radiography courses can be slotted in amongst other courses that don’t quite fit with it.

“Here, all the policies and everything that’s happening to improve the University College and develop it, fit Radiotherapy really well and the investment into our facilities has just been fantastic.”

State-of-the-art facilities

“Our VERT machine – Virtual Environment Radiotherapy Trainer – was recently installed on campus, which is really exciting.

“Through 3D virtual simulation, we can develop students’ anatomy and physiology understanding while working through treatment planning and radiotherapy dose.

“A VERT machine is a virtual reality linear accelerator. Linear accelerators are extremely expensive and use 6 MV of radiation: 2,000 times higher energy than a diagnostic machine. Our virtual reality machine means you can work in 3D, move the machine using the hand pendant control, and set up the patient exactly as you would do it you were working with a linear accelerator.

“The VERT machine allows you to visualise the patient and uses 3D imaging to allow you to see inside the patient (which you wouldn’t be able to normally) and think about what you’re actually treating. There’s lots of learning opportunities: encouraging you to consider the position of the tumour compared to the position of other organs around it that you might be trying to avoid.

“This term, the students are coming in every Wednesday for four hours of practicals on the VERT to consolidate their knowledge. At least one of their clinical assessments will use simulation and VERT. It’s a fantastic resource for students to have access to!”

You can find out more about the BSc (Hons) Radiography (Radiotherapy and Oncology) degree here.