A cancerous lump first developed on Jacqueline's nose five years ago.
A specialist machine for treating skin cancer has sat unused at Altnagelvin Hospital for over three years, the Derry News can reveal today.
The issue came to light after Independent Councillor Paul Gallagher quizzed senior Western Trust representatives at a council meeting about why the XStrahl 150 unit, a superficial X-ray machine specifically used for treating superficial skin cancers, has remained idle at the North West Cancer Centre.
Cllr Gallagher said both his wife, Jacqueline, and her father, have suffered with the disease in recent years.
Trust officials were unable to provide an answer at the time but in a statement to the Derry News confirmed that installation of the machine began in 2017.
However, the Western Trust refused to provide the cost of the machine saying a Freedom of Information (FOI) request would have to be lodged.
It appears that a number of factors are to blame for the machine’s long period of inactivity at the Derry hospital. Those stated by the Trust are the need to train staff, a lack of specialist staff to carry out commissioning and safety checking, and difficulty appointing a consultant to treat skin cancer.
According to the NHS, skin cancer is one of the most common forms of cancer in the world.
But a machine of this type hasn’t been available in Northern Ireland for 15 years.
At present patients with cancerous lumps must get laser treatment which can be painful and leaves scarring. The Xstrahl 150 is less invasive and treatment using the machine provides an “all-round positive experience for every patient”.
The flexibility of the unit means that the treatment is less stressful from the outset and thanks to its unique design the treatment is pain-free, with no surgical scarring. The low energy means pinpoint accuracy, so healthy skin isn’t affected.
The fast treatment means a large reduction in time and impact on the patient’s day-to-day life, whilst providing a highly effective treatment for superficial skin conditions.
Above photo: Jacqueline required a skin graft from her neck to replace the skin removed from her nose
Jacqueline Gallagher said she was first diagnosed with the cancer five years ago after noticing that a cut on her nose wasn’t healing. It necessitated a skin graft from her neck which had to be transplanted on to the area where the cancer had been removed.
The Strabane woman recognised that she would have been a “sun worshipper” and the doctor said it’s likely that was the cause, along with genetics.
That realisation made it all the more difficult for Jacqueline to come to terms with as she blamed herself. However, she feels the time is right to share her experience and educate others around the dangers of overexposure to the sun.
It was a frightening experience for Jacqueline and one she is still managing. “I thought I was going to die, I wasn’t in a good place and it affected my mental health.
“People think you get over it but I’m still living with it. There’s always the fear that it’s going to come back.
“When it happens to you it takes a while to sink in, it made me very self-conscious, especially the first time when it broke out on my nose.
“It makes you very aware of your skin and you start to think about what clothes you’re going to wear and covering up when out in the sun.”
While undergoing treatment Jacqueline noticed that older people are often treated for skin cancer.
On one occasion she noticed that an older lady who left the treatment room in front of her was left with “terrible scars” following laser treatment. If the Xstrahl 150 was available at the time the woman would’ve been spared the trauma, she said.
Jacqueline has spoken to student nurses about her experience before and believes that if she can help just one person it will be worth it.
She believes the X-ray machine at Altnagelvin should be brought in to use immediately. Since her own diagnosis, Jacqueline has been approached by “a lot of people” who have gone through a similar experience and would all have benefited from the XStrahl 150 unit.
Her husband, Cllr Gallagher, echoed those views and questioned why the machine was purchased without the personnel in place to use it.
He said: “This machine could save lives, it has been sitting there for three years and needs to be brought into action. Early detection and treatment is key when it comes to cancer.”
Patient outcomes need to be improved and the machine made operational immediately, he added.
The Western Trust has now said it expects the machine to be used in the treatment of patients this Spring.
A spokesperson explained: “A machine called the XStrahl 150 unit, a superficial X-ray machine specifically for treating superficial skin cancers was installed in the radiotherapy department as part of future proofing the North West Cancer Centre for many years ahead.
“Installation of the machine began in 2017. It was installed at the same time as the linear accelerators (the machines which deliver the deep X-Ray treatments) however it was always intended that the linear accelerators would be commissioned and used first in line with the service implementation plan.”
In response to why it has not been used, she added: “The machine has not been used as yet to treat patients. The radiotherapy department have taken the required time to prepare for the implementation of the superficial treatment machine and have been training a small number of staff who will support the gradual role out of this service.
“This is a new treatment to the radiotherapy department and has not been available in Northern Ireland for 15 years. There had been a delay last year in the commissioning and safety checking of the machine because there has been a lack of specialist staff to perform this essential task.
“There has also been no consultant appointed to treat skin cancer until recently. The commissioning work has now been underway for some time and it is an essential part of the process to ensure that the treatments are safe. A consultant oncologist has now been appointed to treat patients with skin cancers. It is expected that the first patient will be treated in Spring 2020.”
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