How COVID-19 has affected radiotherapy treatments

The COVID 19 pandemic has had a huge impact on us all, and has forced us to adapt how we live and work, and this is no different for those working in the NHS. We spoke to Sarah Bradder, a Band 5 therapeutic radiographer who works alongside our students on placement at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, about how the coronavirus has affected life for her, her colleagues and their patients.

How times have changed!

It’s safe to say that my ‘day to day’ job is very different at the moment, as is true for nearly everyone working in a healthcare setting. I work with cancer patients, delivering radiotherapy treatments, but the coronavirus outbreak has brought changes we couldn’t have predicted. Throughout the pandemic, we still had (and continue to have) patients to treat and so we’ve had to address how this could be done safely for all parties involved. As a therapeutic radiographer it is impossible to keep two metres away from patients and other staff - we are required do our job in pairs and we have to physically manipulate patients when they are on the treatment bed to help ensure treatment delivery is accurate. So surgical masks, aprons and gloves have become a key part of our uniform and ‘donning’ and ‘doffing’ has become the norm. We know that PPE (personal protective equipment) is necessary; however, it doesn’t help at all when we are trying to ease the anxiety of a new patient starting treatment, as our reassuring smiles are hidden, and our speech is muffled. We have had to adapt, and this has meant talking loudly and learning to smile with our eyes. We hope that we can still build the rapport with our patients that we need to have, but is it enough? I hope so.

Reducing personal support

In order to combat the number of people within the department at any one time, we have had to reduce the number of visitors that patients are allowed to bring with them to just one. Where possible we’ve asked that they attend alone. This isn’t something that sits well with any of us as we know that most patients need the moral support of their friends and family when they have to come for radiotherapy every day. Thankfully, our patients have been understanding and I haven’t heard a single complaint, but it doesn’t lessen the fact that this isn’t what they would have chosen to do.

Changes to treatment plans

Another challenge that we’ve had to face is the delays and changes in our patients’ care. Unfortunately, some of the treatments were initially delayed. Some patients were asked to take a course of hormones for 3 months before starting radiotherapy, to limit footfall in the department and to ensure that, if staffing levels were to drop (due to having to isolate for whatever reason), we were in a better situation to cope, and still deliver the professional and friendly service we pride ourselves on.

We also had a number of patients who would normally have had surgery prior to commencing their radiotherapy, but as this would have put them at greater risk of getting COVID-19, their surgeries were cancelled. When it comes to treatment there is always a risk versus benefit assessment made by the consultant and patient, not just in terms of cancer but for anything. The issue that is affecting so many patients now is that COVID-19 tips the risks to outweigh the benefit, subsequently altering their course of treatment. This could be in the form of their surgery being cancelled, chemotherapy schedule being altered, or a radiotherapy course being changed. These changes have happened quickly, so we have had to ensure that we are up to date with any changes that may have occurred. The same goes for our on-treatment review clinics too. Many of our consultants have been re-deployed to other parts of the hospital, and other allied health professionals, such as dietitians, are not allowed to see patients face-to-face. We have therefore needed to ensure that patients are kept up to date, as whether they are being reviewed and when can change on a daily basis.

The light in the darkness

Considering the additional changes and potential uncertainty, the patients have been amazing throughout all of this. They have cancer and are living through a pandemic, yet they still smile and joke around with us, thank us for doing our jobs and want to know that we are alright too. I always say that it’s the patients that are my favourite part of being a therapeutic radiographer, but I feel that ringing true now more than ever.

Our biggest worry now is about all those people at home who aren’t going to the doctor about something that’s been niggling away at them. How many people will we be treating palliatively down the line because their cancer wasn’t caught early enough? That will be the next challenge. ‘Cancer doesn’t stop for COVID’ has become a bit of a mantra within the radiotherapy/cancer community… and unfortunately, it’s true. But my colleagues and I will continue working hard, with smiles on our faces (and in our eyes) to ensure that our patients receive the best care that we can give, in spite of the changed circumstances.

Could you help cancer patients in the future?

If you want a rewarding career that can change lives, studying our BSc (Hons) Radiotherapy degree could be for you. You could get £6000 a year to train too, so why wait?

Find out more about funding