Young patients transformed into their heroes for radiotherapy treatment

Being diagnosed with cancer is traumatic enough but then having to undergo gruelling treatment can be a major ordeal for a child or young person.

Trying to make them more comfortable are two creative clinical technologists who are helping children and young patients combat their fear of radiotherapy treatment.

Fiona McCulloch and Hilary Sturrock work in the mould room at the Beatson West of Scotland Cancer Centre (BWoSCC), and are revamping plain radiotherapy masks into something more child-friendly, to help younger radiotherapy patients feel more comfortable during treatment.

During radiotherapy to the brain, head or neck, a made-to-measure radiotherapy mask is worn by patients to help keep their head still. Patients are asked to lie on the treatment table and the mask is gently placed over their head and neck and fixed to the table. This can be an extremely frightening experience for a child or young person but Fiona and Hilary are transforming the masks into the patient’s favourite superhero or character.

For cancerous tumours that occur on other parts of the body, for example arms and legs, devices are developed using the same method as the masks and these can also be transformed.

Both former art students, Fiona and Hilary work with the patients to create their masterpiece on a blank canvas. The mask and straps will then be stored at the hospital for when they undergo their treatment.

Fiona said: “Radiotherapy treatment wearing one of these masks can understandably be a very frightening experience for children, and can often feel claustrophobic.

“It’s fantastic to see the positive impact the designs are having, and it’s such a pleasure working with patients and creating their ideas and designs.”

Radiographers at the BWoSCC are hoping that over time, this initiative will see a decreased use of anaesthetic, which is sometimes required to calm patients and limit movement.

Hilary said: “I feel grateful to have the opportunity to put my previous study toward such a worthwhile and positive experience for these young patients.

“Although some design requests can start off as a challenge to envision, we have had such great feedback. The radiographers treating these patients have commented on the positive impact a personalised mask or device makes to the child’s experience.”

One patient, five-year-old Lara, has found the mask to be a great help. She said: “It squashes me tight and I love the painting and jewels on it.

“I love that it is a fairy princess and has my name on it, which is my favourite bit. My mask is lovely and googly, and I like that it squashes me tight like mummy cuddling me.”

Molly is 12 and undergoing radiotherapy on her arm. She said: “Although radiotherapy is painless, the machine is huge and being strapped down and told to stay completely still is quite scary.

“Having my arm device hand painted in a vibrant colourful design created especially for me, added a personal touch and made the treatment feel less clinical. My strap is a lovely, a personal souvenir of my time spent in Glasgow.”

The clinical technologists have so far recreated Batman, Pikachu, a tiger, the Hulk and a butterfly.