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Research Radiographer forges a new role in cancer care

 August 9, 2018 | Simon Jenkins

“I AM passionate about this job and about doing the best for my patients.”

Neuro-Oncology Research Radiographer Sharon Fernandez recently joined a University research group which is dedicated to seeking out revolutionary new treatments for brain cancer.

Sharon’s role, funded through generous donations to our Footsteps Fund, will be crucial both to recruiting new patients onto trials of new therapies and to giving them the best possible experience during their treatment.

Sharon studied radiotherapy and oncology at the University of Liverpool, completing her final year dissertation on neuro-oncology before working as a therapy radiographer at Leeds Cancer Centre. She previously trained for three years at The Christie NHS Foundation Trust, but wished to further develop herself in a new department: “I wanted to expand my horizons and see how patients are treated elsewhere,” she says.

The Leeds research team is led by Professor Susan Short who admits that there is sometimes a disconnect between the work of the cancer clinics and radiotherapy: “We have a group of nurses who look after the patients but they are not so familiar with radiotherapy and its side-effects. To make our studies as good as possible, we need to improve the relationship between the research clinic and radiotherapy – and Sharon fills that gap in a really effective way.”

Brain cancer patients, typically facing a poor prognosis, are given an intensive five-day a week, 6 week programme of treatment at St James’s Hospital in Leeds. For patients on this pathway, already vulnerable because of their diagnosis, the treatment can be physically and mentally exhausting. Having an expert research radiographer dedicated to their care, gives them a single point of contact who will be with them through every stage of the process.

“Five to 10 patients are actively having treatment at any one time,” says Sharon. “I see them in clinic, make observations and get to know them. It’s quite a small group so I can afford to dedicate plenty of time with each patient.”

On a practical level, Sharon also ensures that their daily appointments for chemotherapy and radiotherapy dovetail with their participation in the research and their infusions of the trial drugs.

She is also helping to recruit patients onto the trials and has been instrumental in setting up a new imaging study where patients are given extra scans in addition to their radiotherapy to explore how quickly their tumour is responding to treatment.

Almost 800 donors contributed a total of £159,000 to the work of Susan and her team. As well as Sharon’s appointment, these generous gifts have enabled us to appoint a research technician who will use mouse models to replicate drug and imaging trials – and test out new ideas in the lab.

This funding was absolutely critical to creating Sharon’s role, believed to be the only one of its kind in the country. “This post would very difficult to fund otherwise,” says Susan. “This kind of role doesn’t exist anywhere else, but Sharon is absolutely proving its value. She is also acting as an ambassador and is presenting a poster about her role – and the difference that it will make – at The College of Radiographers Annual Radiotherapy Conference.

“This focussed post is making such a difference to the number of patients we have in our trials – and is giving them a better experience while they are here. It will help us to explore new ways of testing whether the patient is responding to treatment.

“It’s great for our patients to have someone to follow them through their pathway; they feel they are getting a higher standard of care when they have this known point of contact. We’re so grateful to the Footsteps Fund donors whose generosity has made all of this possible.”

Sharon is keen to extend the impact of the role still further: “We are trying to give patients a better quality of life and we want to take this as far as we can to develop the patient-centred care pathway.

“I’ve always enjoyed coming to work but this job has taken that to another level. I wouldn’t change it for the world.”

Research Radiographer forges a new role in cancer care