Opticians helping in the Fight against Brain Cancer.

Julie Breen

Yes! Really!  Well, we are in South Tees at any rate.

It's been a bit of an interesting journey to get to this point and I've become involved with some very remarkable people on the way , but in my role as Chair of the Tees Local Optical Committee ( LOC) together with the Macmillan Integration of Cancer Care Project for the South Tees Foundation Trust, we are just about to extend a pilot into Redcar and Cleveland that has been running in Middlesbrough for the past three months. 

It all started with a rather random phone call one miserable wintry afternoon. A lovely lady called Carol, the project co-ordinator I later discovered, wondered if I thought that local opticians would be interested in being part of a project to improve the speed of diagnosis of brain tumours. And I said "Yes, well who wouldn't ". 

And so I was introduced to an amazing and largely unsung group of people who are working to improve cancer outcomes in the South Tees Trust area. A hugely varied and committed board that aims to improve the journey for all sufferers of every kind of cancer and their families.  This board consists of hospital doctors and managers, nurse managers, Macmillan doctors from the community, those that looks after care homes and community services, patients whose lives cancer has touched, and loads of others. They are all working towards improving diagnosis, making treatment in hospital more streamlined, taking treatments out of hospital if possible, looking after the families of cancer sufferers, looking at end of life care and helping the increasing numbers of people who survive cancer but have to cope with the physical and psychological aftermath. All in an patch that includes areas of urban living, rural communities and some parts of severe deprivation. A huge undertaking I'm sure you'll agree, and with the inevitable limited resources, the board has prioritised it's activities.

One of the major concerns in Tees and the wider UK is the stage at which brain tumours, some of which are cancer, are diagnosed and treated. It seems that although the NHS' ' two week rule' has had a significant impact in the earlier diagnosis and treatment of many kinds of cancer, the same can't be said of brain cancer. These malignancies although, and I can't stress this enough, QUITE RARE, are too often diagnosed late when the cancer is severely affecting the sufferer, and the probable outcomes by that time aren't good. 

Some of the reasons for this are that the early symptoms can be quite general and non specific. For instance, a headache of a type that more often than not is associated with fatigue or dehydration or stress, when fatigue and dehydration and stress are all present in a sufferer's life. 

So why are opticians getting involved I bet you're wondering? Well, as I said some of the symptoms of brain tumour can be quite commonplace and general. However some of the SIGNS i.e. what is observed, are very specific and seen only in brain related problems. Two of these signs are easily found by opticians because we have the equipment in practice to find them. 

And that's what the South Tees Opticians Referral Project (STORP) is all about,  getting patients who arrive at their GP with symptoms that are suspicious, or people who come for a sight test with unexplained headache or the like, screened with both a visual field screener and have the backs of their eyes viewed in 3D. And if those results suggest a problem, to get the patient referred direct to neurology at James Cook University Hospital extremely quickly. 

The pilot and pathway has been running in the Middlesbrough area for the past 3 months. Results are rather hard to assess at the moment as I have previously said, brain tumours are thankfully rather rare ( an optician can have a whole career and only detect one or two), but we're confident that the mechanisms are in place to speed the process of detection and referral should it be appropriate. The rollout into Redcar and Cleveland means that more people have access to the service and we're more likely to see someone benefit positively from it.

On a national level, this is the very first collaboration between community opticians and secondary, hospital care to improve patient care, and the Department of Health are taking a keen interest. No pressure then!!

The official briefing for the opticians in Redcar and Cleveland is Tuesday 29th September, and we hope to have things moving very soon after that. 

Personally, it's great to see the skills and equipment that opticians have on every High Street being utilized in this innovative way.  I am working very hard, as are all those involved from the Macmillan Integration of Cancer Care Project, to make both these pilot studies a success as we would all like to see the speed of diagnosis and treatment of this rare but devastating group of conditions speeded up. We all want to see many more people who are diagnosed with brain tumours surviving and recovering.  With Macmillan Cancer Support the fight against cancer is always the top priority.