19/02/2024 | Press releases

New light therapy boost for head and neck cancer patients

Cancer patients are benefiting from a new light therapy treatment which tackles a common side effect caused by chemotherapy and radiotherapy.

Photobiomodulation (PBM) has launched in hospitals run by East Suffolk and North Essex NHS Foundation Trust (ESNEFT) to prevent or treat oral mucositis. It occurs when cancer treatments damage the lining of the mouth. This can leave the tissue vulnerable to ulceration and infection.

All head and neck cancer patients having radiotherapy are being offered PBM at Colchester and Ipswich hospitals. The treatments are being overseen by Jenny Gale, radiotherapy sister at Colchester, and Lyndsey Rew Macmillan specialist radiographer at Ipswich.

Jenny is also interim head and neck clinical nurse specialist at ESNEFT. She has had radiotherapy treatment herself so is able to relate to what her patients are feeling and the benefits PBM will bring for them.

She said: “It can really make your mouth sore. It hurts to swallow too which can make eating and drinking difficult, as well as having an impact on your general wellbeing.

“Unlike the side effects, PBM is completely painless. It’s very simple to carry out so most patients can do it themselves and take control of their treatment which is amazing.

“Evidence shows patients need less pain relief when they’ve had PBM, and they generally cope with their treatment better. It’s really exciting that we are offering it in our hospitals now.”

PBM works by applying infrared light to tissue, via two probes, which can reduce inflammation and improve healing. Funding for two Thor laser machines, one at Colchester Hospital and the other at Ipswich Hospital, was provided thanks to a £31,000 grant from Colchester & Ipswich Hospitals Charity.

Glenn Martin and Tony Bell were among the first patients to have PBM at Colchester Hospital.

A man stands in the radiotherapy department at Colchester Hospital

He said: “It was a breeze. I’m grateful to be able to have it. I’ve had a very sore mouth, so much so that I’ve been liquid feeding. The worst thing is that it (treatment) cripples your taste buds. Everything tastes totally different. Savoury things taste awful and sweet things become overly sweet.”

Tony’s tongue cancer diagnosis came about “purely by accident”. He had been having trouble with his legs and walking. He could only manage very short distances before needing to rest so he got himself checked out.

He added: “I had no end of tests and then all this showed up. They found something in my lung that was 3mm long, so I thought it was lung cancer. I had various scans, and I was told it was in my tonsils, but I said that couldn’t be possible as I had them taken out when I was four or five. But apparently you have two sets, so they took those out just before Christmas and took biopsies and that’s when they found it at the base of my tongue. I was amazed but I’m touching wood that it’s been caught early.”

A man administers his PBM light therapy treatment

Glenn, 69, from Chelmsford, pictured above administering his first PBM treatment, is having chemotherapy and radiotherapy at Colchester Hospital.

He had cancer on his tongue and had surgery at Chelmsford’s Broomfield Hospital last November to remove part of it, which was replaced with skin from his forearm.

Glenn, who’s married to wife Dawn, added: “I’ve been in more pain recently and I’ve not been able to eat. I felt a bit better after my first PBM session. I wish it was available when my treatment started. It will make a massive difference to people.”

PBM is National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) recommended. Research into its use for patients with head and neck cancer has seen positive results. Patients receiving PBM have needed less pain relief. Hospital admissions for oral mucositis have also reduced, as has the use of feeding tubes and PEG/RIGG support.

Putting patients in control of their treatment 

Suzanne Isherwood is ESNEFT’s head of radiotherapy.

She said: “I think it’s fantastic that ESNEFT is now able to offer this treatment at both our radiotherapy departments, and we are grateful to the Colchester and Ipswich hospitals charity for making this possible.

“Radiotherapy can be daunting and is a treatment where patients very much put themselves in our hands every day. We are training patients to use the equipment, so they have control over what they do. The early feedback we’ve received on both hospital sites has been very positive.

“We’re hoping there will be more use of PBM for other cancers in the future, but we’re just using it for head and neck patients for now as that’s where the research has been done so far.”

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