As It Happens

BBC tech reporter documents his own cutting-edge 'proton beam' eye cancer treatment

Documenting the high-tech treatment for the rare eye cancer he's lived with for 14 years was interesting, enjoyable, and "frankly a distraction," says Rory Cellan-Jones

Rory Cellan-Jones says reporting his own story helped him cope

Rory Cellan-Jones spent five days at the Clatterbridge Cancer Centre in Wirral, U.K., to treat an ocular melanoma. (Submitted by Rory Cellan-Jones)
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BBC technology correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones is used to trying out the latest gadgets. But undergoing cutting-edge eye cancer treatment isn't exactly a dream assignment. 

Earlier this month, the journalist spent five days at the Clatterbridge Cancer Centre in Wirral, the lone treatment centre in the U.K. that offers proton beam therapy for eye cancers. 

"One of the doctors described it as being like a depth charge," Cellan-Jones told As It Happens guest host Robyn Bresnahan. 

"It does sound frightening, but once you understand it, it's just deeply impressive."

The journalist got through his treatment by immersing himself in the technology, interviewing the people who work at the centre and taking a behind-the-scenes tour of the machinery.

And he documented it all for the BBC in an online feature called: "My proton beam therapy diary."

Cellan-Jones was diagnosed with a choroidal melanoma, a rare form of eye cancer, in 2005. At the time he was treated with surgery to implant a radioactive disc behind his eye, followed by occasional laser treatments. 

It slowed the growth of the melanoma, but at a recent check-up at Moorefields Hospital in London, the doctors decided "another more radical method was needed," he said. 

Enter: proton beam therapy. It's a newer method of radiation that delivers cancer-killing particles with more precision, cutting down on the damage to healthy tissue and the risk of secondary cancers that can develop from other treatment methods. 

The treatment is not available in Canada, though some preliminary investments have been made in developing a treatment centre in Montreal. Some U.S. health centres offer the treatment, with more facilities investing in the technology. 

The Clatterbridge Cancer Centre brings together doctors, radiographers, and nuclear physicists. Over the last 30 years, the team has built what is effectively a particle accelerator, Cellan-Jones said.

Cellan-Jones asked one of the physicists if it was a bit like the Large Hadron Collider, but on a smaller scale. 

"And he said, 'Yeah it is, but the thing about it, it's colliding with your eye — and doing a good deal of damage to the tumour."

Cellan-Jones took home the personal mask he needed during proton beam therapy as a souvenir. (Submitted by Rory Cellan-Jones)

The treatment lasted four days, but each session was short and painless, he said. 

"There is a physicist on duty each day whose main job is lining this up incredibly accurately," he said.

"You look at the red light, they retreat from the room so that they don't get affected by the radiation, a siren goes off, and then it lasts exactly 31 seconds. And then you're free to go." 

Cellan-Jones will receive an update in August on how well his treatment worked.

In the meantime, he says he found that becoming the story was helpful for him — and others.

The journalist was also diagnosed with Parkinson's a few months ago, which he opened up about after viewers noticed his hands were shaking on air. 

"Talking about that proved very valuable. I got lots of advice and help, and people with the condition told me it helped them," he said.

Documenting his cancer treatment had another positive side effect, he said. 

"That was an enjoyable thing to do and also, to be frank, a distraction from, you know, worrying about what was going on."

Written by Sarah-Joyce Battersby. Produced by Sarah Cooper.

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