Every morning, Erion Dehari packs a bag and leaves his room in the in-patient wing of the University Medical Centre “Mother Teresa” in Tirana, Albania’s capital, for his treatment.
The 27-year old student was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2016 in a hospital in Berat, a small city located 70 kilometres south of the capital. After unsuccessful treatments, he was transferred to “Mother Teresa” this summer where he is now receiving radiotherapy with a brand new linear accelerator, acquired with the support of the IAEA (see Linear accelerator).
“I received an operation in my hometown and the result was that I was not able to move my right hand and my left foot. Radiotherapy with the new machine has helped me a lot, after one month here, I’m feeling better, I can now move my hand and walk again,” said Dehari.
Cancer is a major public health problem in Albania. According to the Ministry of Health, the disease has become the second most important cause of death, after cardiovascular disease accounting for 27% of all deaths last year.
“About 7000 new cancer cases are reported in the country every year and it is estimated that at least 50% of these patients will need radiotherapy treatment”, said Orges Spahiu, Chief of the Radiation Oncology Department at the “Mother Teresa” Centre.
The lack of proper cancer care equipment and facilities means that many patients are left untreated. Radiation therapy machines are an essential part of effective cancer treatment, but they are expensive to acquire and maintain, and also require specialized treatment of medical staff.
“Mother Teresa”, which treats 90% of all cancer cases, is the only public hospital that provides radiation therapy treatment in this country of 3.3 million people.
The IAEA and Albania’s government joined forces ten years ago to support the hospital and have paid for the installation of this latest machine as well.
But it takes a lot more than the right equipment to provide effective cancer treatment.
The IAEA has assisted with drafting a national cancer control programme in Albania and the commissioning of nuclear medicine and radiotherapy machines since the establishment of the first radiotherapy unit at the hospital in 1966. It has also trained medical staff in machine handling and radiation safety”, said Minister of Health Ogerta Manastirliu.
Over the last few years, the hospital has expanded treatment techniques from cobalt teletherapy to linear accelerators, allowing doctors to treat complex cases faster and with more precision.
Today, the hospital has two linear accelerators (linac) for radiotherapy treatment and one single-photo emission computed tomography (SPECT-CT) machine for the diagnosis of cancer, cardiovascular and other chronic non-communicable diseases. The second linac was delivered to the hospital in May 2018.
“With the installation of the second linear accelerator, the centre now has the potential to treat about 1350 cases per year. We also have the possibility to treat patients that were not treated before and, as a result, we have reduced the waiting list from two months to two or three weeks” Spahiu said.
After a new radiotherapy machine is delivered to a country and about to begin operation in clinical settings, the IAEA supports the recipients in three ways:
arranges for machine-specific training by the manufactures
supports medical professionals in training in countries that already have similar equipment in operation and
sends experts to verify the radiotherapy’s machine commissioning process, in the interests of both effectiveness and safety.
A linear accelerator is the device most commonly used to treat cancer with external beam radiation.
This machine is used to treat all organs of the body. It delivers high-energy X-rays or electrons to the region of the patient's tumour. These treatments can be designed in such a way that they destroy the cancer cells while sparing the surrounding normal tissue.
Radiation therapy, or radiotherapy, is a branch of medicine that focuses on the use of radiation to treat cancer. It is designed to use radiation to target and kill cells. In the case of cancer, when the radiation is applied to a cancerous tumour, or a mass of malignant cells, the targeted cells are damaged and killed, leading to a reduction of the tumour size or, in some cases, the disappearance of the mass.