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I’ll fight for treatment so I can see my son grow up, vows terminal cancer patient

By Lisa Smyth

A terminally ill cancer patient has spoken of his determination to survive for his baby son after losing a legal bid for a pioneering treatment.

Brian Withers from east Belfast went to the High Court in a desperate effort to secure funding for a special type of radiotherapy treatment not available in Northern Ireland.

He was challenging a decision by a panel of experts that he should instead receive palliative chemotherapy for a tumour in his chest.

However, Mr Withers was dealt a devastating blow on Monday when he was refused leave to seek a judicial review after a judge held that medical opinion should not be interfered with.

After the hearing, he said: “I’m disappointed but I have a 15-month-old son, Brian. He is something to live for. I have an appointment with a different doctor and I am going to ask her to refer me for this treatment.

“To do nothing is certain early death for someone in my position. This treatment is the opportunity of life.”

The 60-year-old, who quit work in banking and financial services due to ill-health, was seeking funding for Stereotactic Body Radiotherapy (SBRT) delivered by technology known as CyberKnife — currently only available in five hospitals in England.

CyberKnife is a state-of-the-art piece of equipment that allows specialist oncologists to treat tumours and is so accurate that it is possible to treat tumours previously thought to be inoperable.

Mr Withers has already travelled to London to undergo the procedure, which works alongside traditional chemotherapy, on a separate abdominal tumour.

He raised £30,000 through loans and donations for that radiotherapy and said his stomach area has just been given the all-clear.

But despite the chemotherapy initially working to shrink another secondary cancer identified in his chest area, Mr Withers said it has now grown back.

Unable to fund the treatment himself, he wanted the Belfast Health & Social Care Trust to recommend financing another course of SBRT.

However, a multi-disciplinary team decided in May last year that palliative chemotherapy should be given to him.

In court yesterday, counsel for Mr Withers argued that the decision was irrational and breached his right to life under European law. Barrister Michael Forde also claimed his client was not properly informed of an opportunity to seek funding.

It was further contended that a second opinion and recommendation of London-based NHS clinical oncologist Dr Andrew Gaye — an expert in the CyberKnife procedure — was not taken into consideration.

David Dunlop, for the trust, countered that the legal challenge should be rejected because it was not for the courts to decide on the judgment of medical experts.

Mr Justice Treacy agreed that the judicial review application must be dismissed, despite expressing sympathy for Mr Withers' condition.

Mr Withers said: “I can’t speak for the trust but if I was to be cynical about it I would say they made this decision not to let me have the treatment because of money. This is a postcode lottery. If I lived elsewhere, for example Bristol, I would be sent to one of the hospitals in London for the treatment.

“Dr Gaye was offering me the chance of life,” said Mr Withers.

Background

The CyberKnife is not actually a knife at all — it is a state-of-the-art piece of equipment that allows specialist oncologists to treat tumours and other medical conditions painlessly without the need for an operation. CyberKnife uses pencil beams of radiation which can be directed at any part of the body from any direction via a robotic arm. The robotic arm tracks the tumour's position, detects any movement of the tumour or patient, and corrects its positioning before targeting the tumour with multiple beams of high-energy radiation, destroying abnormal tissue without damaging surrounding areas. The treatment is so accurate that it is now possible to treat tumours previously thought to be inoperable.

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