A specialist machine used in the treatment of skin cancer at Altnagelvin Hospital will not be operational until the end of this year, the Derry News can reveal today.
The machine, named the XStrahl 150 x-ray unit, has not been used to treat one patient in Derry four years after it was installed.
The radiotherapy department at the North West Cancer Centre has radiotherapy equipment comprising of three Varian Truebeam Linear accelerators used to treat tumours and lesions in various parts of the body including the lungs, breast, head and neck.
It also has an XStrahl 150 x-ray unit which delivers ‘impressive results’ for superficial skin cancers.
Local woman Jacqueline Gallagher, who underwent treatment for skin cancer, said that without the specialist machine patients can be left with ‘terrible scars’ on their face.
The XStrahl machine was installed in spring-summer 2016 when the building was being completed but has not been functional in that time.
It is the first machine of its kind in Northern Ireland for over 15 years.
The Western Trust previously refused to provide details of the machine’s cost.
However, an FOI response obtained by the Derry News shows that the superficial unit cost £168,605, including operator applications training.
The paper previously highlighted the issue at the beginning of the year when the Western Trust explained that several reasons including difficulties in recruiting specialist staff led to delays.
A consultant oncologist was then appointed to treat patients with skin cancers and patients were expected to be treated in Spring 2020.
Five radiographers have also been trained in its use.
Unfortunately, the Coronavirus pandemic emerged and hospital services had to be reconfigured to deal with the public health crisis.
Efforts are ongoing in the NHS to return to a ‘new normal’ in terms of delivering services - with cancer treatment at the top of that list.
When asked for an update on the specialist machine and when it will be operational, a Western Trust spokesperson said: “Work to implement the service was halted in March 2020 due to the need to divert resources towards dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, as it was necessary to preserve and maintain existing services.
“The Trust continues to assess the risk of COVID-19 for our patients and staff and needs to stay prepared for a potential second surge which could coincide with winter pressures.
“We are therefore mindful that to begin a new service we need to ensure that all existing contingency measures are robust.
“With this in mind, we are currently reviewing the work so far and putting plans in place to resume the project to implement the service.
“The service is projected to be operational by the end of December 2020.”
According to the NHS, skin cancer is one of the most common forms of cancer in the world.
As with all cancers, experts say that early detection and treatment is key.
At a Derry City & Strabane District Council meeting earlier this year, Independent Councillor Paul Gallagher challenged the Western Trust about why the machine has lain idle for so long.
His wife, Jacqueline, was first diagnosed with skin cancer a number of years ago and required a neck to nose skin graft where cancer had been removed.
It was a frightening experience for Jacqueline who thought she was going to die and one which affected her mental health.
Fears remain that the cancer will return.
Speaking yesterday, Cllr Gallagher said: “With cancer of any kind it is very much about early detection, and while I understand everything with COVID, what we don’t want to be seeing is a lot of cases coming to the fore this time next year around skin cancer that could’ve been detected earlier on.”
He added: “The quicker this machine is in place the better it will be in terms of avoiding a logjam of cases.
“We’ve seen recently some cancer patients who didn’t get treatment dying prematurely.
“We can’t allow this regardless of the circumstances with COVID.
“This is as life saving as it is finding a treatment for COVID.
“If you lose a loved one through COVID or lose them prematurely to cancer the grief is no different.”
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