Photo-dynamic therapy – gentler cancer treatment

 ‘With PDT you don’t suffer skin burns. You don’t have your hair falling out. Your white blood cells aren’t destroyed, so your immune system stays intact and allows you to fight off all the other bugs,’ according to Chris Tarrant.

Just recently Jean Pringle from Bishop Auckland was dying from mouth cancer. She was unlikely to live long enough to attend her son’s wedding in August 2008. She was due to have radical surgery which would remove her tongue, part of her jaw and several teeth. A feature on PDT in a national newspaper changed Jean’s fortunes. She was given Photodynamic Therapy by the specialist, Colin Hopper, and now Jean will be able to attend her son’s wedding with an intact face.

The choices for anyone faced with cancer are often grim – if they take conventional treatment such as chemotherapy and radiotherapy they are often beset with serious side-effects such as losing their hair, skin damage and being sick. Surgery too can induce physical and emotional scars that take a long time to heal.

A non-invasive treatment – photodynamic therapy (PDT) – that uses non-toxic drugs based on chlorophyll and low-powered lights and lasers, is increasingly being used for throat, skin, prostate and now even lung cancers with great success. Usually PDT only requires one treatment. Although little known about it is available at 30 UK hospitals.

PDT is designed to be selective, and only zap the cancer cells. If healthy cells are zapped by accident, they re-grow within weeks. That’s not the only advantage. PDT can usually kill cancers in just a single treatment and, if a few cancer cells are missed, you can repeat the treatment.

There is no real down side with PDT, while many patients are advised to stay in a darkened room for a few days after their treatment. That’s because PDT uses a light sensitive drug that is activated by a low-powered light. It kills the cancer cells by knocking out the oxygen supply to the cancer cells.

‘I have realised that the frequency of my visits to churches to attend the funerals of close friends is starting to increase,’ says Chris Tarrant, DJ and TV presenter, who has given his backing to the Killing Cancer charity which aims to get photodynamic therapy more recognised among the medical profession and more available within hospitals.

‘Fifty years ago medical boffins realised that sunlight had a positive effect on all sorts of patients. For example, they found that leukaemia patients in the shady half of a ward remained quite poorly while those on the sunny side got better quite quickly.

Photodynamic therapy has been used to treat patients at London’s National Medical Laser Centre at UCL for a dozen years or more. The science has moved on fast and some of the greatest success has been with skin and mouth cancers and now PDT is available at 30 NHS hospitals in the UK.

Chris says, ‘For me 30 centres is not enough. Until more of us know about PDT ourselves and more GPs know about it this treatment is going to remain a secret.

‘I met the Professor who is leading the research in the UK. I met the professor who is leading the research in the UK. He is one of those rather special people who are all too rare in the world. Steve Bown explained to me that PDT is treating thousands of patients around the world for skin, head, neck and mouth cancers. They are also working on something called Barrett’s Oesphagus that is the pre-condition to oesophageal cancer, successfully treating patients.

‘They have also been working on lung cancer, getting some great results, and are treating patients with prostate cancer. The point is, with more money, they could be developing PDT for lots of other cancers, including liver, brain, pancreas and colon.

‘The problem for the charity is that they don’t have the millions in the bank that other cancer charities do, and the drug companies who are working with them are paupers when compared to the big names we see on the pills and potions that pack the shelves in our bathrooms.

‘Your GP doesn’t know about the PDT option because the small drug companies involved don’t have the vast funds needed to promote the treatment. To promote something like PDT, you need a lot of money.’


‘If you are still undecided about PDT,’ Chris continues, ‘There is nothing more powerful than meeting the patients being treated with this incredibly effective cancer killer. The first I met was Kim. She’s an elegant woman, and the mother of four smashing kids.

‘She was diagnosed with a skin cancer on her nose, and from all the research she did, everyone pointed her to having PDT. Her GP didn’t know the first thing about PDT.

‘Thanks to the Internet, she read up all about it. For Kim, the alternatives would have been radiotherapy or surgery. Depending upon how deep the roots were of the cancer, they would have to chop away more or less of her nose. In the worst cases, they remove the entire nose and replace it with a plastic shell and scavenge flesh from other parts of your body to create something of a patchwork quilt. It sounds revolting.

‘She found out about the possibility of a PDT treatment at the National Medical Laser Centre just three days before her visit to the man with the scalpels. She thanks her lucky stars every day, and the PDT bonus for her was that there has been no scar. To look at Kim, you wouldn’t know she has had a brush with cancer.

‘Kim knows how and why she got her cancer. It was a legacy of teenage years when thinking that having a tan didn’t have its down side. She was pleased as punch to go back to school after winter skiing trips with a rich tan. She didn’t know the damage she was doing to herself in the long term.

‘These days, we know more of the dangers of skin cancer and the implications of getting that wonderful tan. These days, Kim’s only tan comes from a bottle.

‘When you realise that skin cancer is being discovered in people in their teens, you realise again that cancer is something that is hitting people of all ages.

‘Where I am really shocked is of the public ignorance about the level of protection that we need from our sun screens. There are two types of rays that can give us skin cancer, and not all the lotions cover you for both.

‘So, the task for the people at Killing Cancer is as much about education as it is about fund raising. We all know of dozens of cancer charities. We have them for every different cancer, and in some cases there are several all seeking to find a cure for the same thing. Each and every one of us has probably given money to a cancer charity at some time or another.

‘But am I the only one of us who is starting to think that, despite the millions and billions spent on research into cancer, we still don’t appear to be any closer to a cure? Surely, after all this time, we should have something more to show for all that money?

‘My introduction to PDT has raised lots of issues for me. While the other charities are researching a cure, Killing Cancer isn’t asking for cash and my celebrity support to find a cure for this or that cancer. They have a cancer treatment … but they needed funds to develop it.

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