Researchers at the University of St Andrews have been awarded over £110,000 by charity Breast Cancer Now in partnership with the Scottish Government’s Chief Scientist Office to lead a new trial to train radiographers to help reduce patients’ fear that their breast cancer will return. 

Breast cancer remains the UK’s most common cancer, with around 4,700 women in Scotland being diagnosed each year. Thanks to advances in research, more women are now surviving breast cancer than ever before. However, it is estimated that soon after treatment around 40% of patients develop significant fears that their cancer will return, which can have a severe impact on their quality of life

A recent pilot study, led by Professor Gerry Humphris at the University of St Andrews, found that nearly a third of patients began to develop fears that their cancer would return over the course of their radiotherapy treatment – and suggested that communication between a patient and their radiographer could influence how the level of this fear changes over time.  

With Breast Cancer Now funding, Professor Gerry Humphris will lead a new two-year trial (FORECAST2) to investigate whether radiographers could be trained to help prevent these long-term fears from developing in the first place, which could significantly improve patients’ quality of life after breast cancer treatment.    

The team, which includes research fellow Dr Mara van Beusekom, will first develop training materials to enable radiographers to understand and manage emotional communications more effectively, reassure their patients and help alleviate fears of their cancer returning. 

The training package – which will be developed in consultation with patients, members of the Society and College of Radiographers – will enable staff to encourage patients to express their concerns and fears, and to understand how best to communicate with their patients as they near the end of their treatment. 

The team will then trial the training course with staff at a local cancer specialist centre in Scotland, to find out how easily it is adopted by staff and whether it will benefit patients – which the researchers hope could then lead to wider trials across the UK. 

Professor Gerry Humphris, University of St Andrews said;

This is the first study dedicated to preventing patients developing long-term fears of their cancer returning before they finish treatment. 

Our initial study found that the way conversations between radiographers and patients are managed can have a significant impact, both positive and negative, on the mental wellbeing of patients and their perspective following breast cancer treatment.   

With new Breast Cancer Now funding, we’ll be able to develop a training package to help medical teams find new ways to manage and reduce patient anxiety. We hope that the study will also help further improve relationships and communications between patients and their medical staff, which is likely to improve their experience and quality of life after treatment.

Ashleigh Simpson, Policy and Campaigns Manager (Scotland) at Breast Cancer Care and Breast Cancer Now, which is co-funding the trial, said:

This is a really exciting trial that could help improve patients’ quality of life during and after their treatment for breast cancer. It’s very common for people who have had breast cancer to fear that the disease will return after treatment. For some people this fear can have a significant long-term effect on their life and mental health. 

Professor Humphris’ study is incredibly important as it will help clinicians to understand how they can better support breast cancer patients who may be getting anxious about their cancer returning after treatment. This training package could ultimately help radiographers and other healthcare professionals to adopt the best methods at the most appropriate time to help reduce this fear, which will allow people to achieve the best possible quality of life during and after treatment for breast cancer. 

In the meantime, we’d encourage any women who are finding it difficult to cope with their fears about their breast cancer returning to call our free Helpline on 0808 800 6000.

Health Secretary Jeane Freeman said:

Being diagnosed with cancer is an anxious time for all those affected. It’s important that patients can be reassured when receiving treatment. 

I am pleased that, with funding from the Scottish Government’s Chief Scientist Office and Breast Cancer Now, researchers will be looking at how communications between patients and radiographers can help support patients feel more reassured following treatment.

Blue White from Glenrothes in Fife was diagnosed with breast cancer in September 2015 after a routine mammogram. The 64-year-old great-grandmother was shocked to be told that she had breast cancer and would need surgery and radiotherapy. Since then, Blue had recovered from treatment but the fear that her disease will return remains a consistent worry.

She explains; 

It has now been three years since my breast cancer diagnosis and I’m trying to get on with my life. However, I felt completely unprepared to try to cope with life after my treatment and my fears that the disease could return. I tried to just get on with things but I found the end of my treatment particularly hard as suddenly I didn’t have a dedicated medical professional to discuss my fears with.   

I felt torn and confused - I was thankful that I had reached the end of my treatment but emotionally it wasn’t over. I’ve learnt to try and tuck that fear into the back of mind but when something goes wrong with my body my initial reaction is to panic that it could be my cancer returning.

Read more of our Scottish News stories