health

Why thousands of Australian cancer patients have tiny tattoos on their breasts.

It’s the often unknown side of cancer treatments.

For years, doctors and other medical professionals have been marking cancer patients with tiny tattoos to pinpoint exactly where they need to receive radiotherapy.

The small dots often look like pen markings, but they remain on the skin, even after the cancer is gone.

For many former cancer patients, it’s a painful reminder of what they have endured, but it is also the most effective method for medical professionals to make sure the treatment is precise.

Until now.

Radiotherapy Tattoo
Cancer patients are often left marked with radiotherapy tattoos. Image: Cancer Research UK

The Alfred Hospital in Melbourne is one of just a handful of health clinics around the world offering radiotherapy without any permanent skin markings, as first reported by The Sydney Morning Herald.

Instead, they have been using surface guided technology to target the exact area for treatment on a patient.

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The Alfred said they decided to look into alternative options after hearing complaints from cancer patients who had been branded with tattoos.

This is a particular concern for breast cancer patients, according to The Alfred's acting deputy radiation therapy manager, Catherine Russell.

"For breast patients especially, tattoos and skin marks may be in a visible area. There are documented psychosocial impacts of tattoos upon patients, as well as an infection control risk," Ms Russell tells Mamamia.

"Temporary skin marks require diligence to maintain and there is a risk of inaccuracies being introduced each time they are redrawn/reapplied. Adhesive tapes, sometimes used to protect the marks from fading, can also irritate skin."

So far, the surface guided technology has been working quite well for the hospital and its patients.

"The Alfred has research that shows surface guided radiation therapy for breast cancer improves setup accuracy without the need for tattoos or skin marks," adds Ms Russell.

It's also been well-received by many women undergoing cancer treatments at The Alfred.

"We are happy to be able to provide treatment to women without having to permanently, or semi-permanently, mark their skin," says Ms Russell.

"In some cases, women can feel self-conscious about the marks, and it can serve as a reminder of the cancer for years to come."

Although many medical professionals believe it will take some time before radiotherapy tattoos are phased out completely, it's undoubtedly reassuring for many cancer patients that alternatives are available.

Renude Laser Clinic in Sydney, which specialises in laser tattoo removal, is currently offering a free service to remove radiation tattoos on breast cancer patients. To find out more, email: [email protected] 

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