SINCE it opened a decade ago, the Cancer Centre at the Churchill Hospital has helped transform treatment and care for cancer patients across Oxfordshire.

Staff and patients will gather today to celebrate 10 years of the centre; 10 years which have seen cancer services hauled into the 21st century for millions of people in the county and surrounding region.

The centre was a vast improvement on the cold, damp World War 2 buildings where patients would previously have gone for cancer treatment at the hospital in Headington.

However, treating around 1,500 patients a week and offering some of the most state-of-the-art diagnostic and treatment facilities available, it is now a centre of excellence for cancer services and has become regarded as a world-leader in cancer care.

Read also: 'A centre we can be proud of' - staff mark 10th anniversary of Churchill cancer unit

Though despite the clear benefits and desperately needed upgrade, the journey to getting the centre built was not easy, while the recent threat to the vital PET-CT scanning service show the future is not guaranteed.

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The hospital was built during the Second World War, however by the late 20th Century those buildings, then used for radiotherapy treatment had become dilapidated and in serious need of renovation.

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In fact Oxford at that time had fallen behind places like Guildford, Coventry and Leicester in cancer care.

And so the idea to bring all cancer services under one roof was a ‘no brainer’, says cancer specialist Dr Chris Alcock, who began planning improvements to the Churchill when he arrived in the 1980s.

However, he would be left frustrated for two decades as funding, bureaucracy, and changes in management consistently kept significant improvements out of reach.

He said: “In the 1980s when I came we had fallen way behind and by the 90s we had a fantastic group of people but in really crumby buildings, former Oxford Mail columnist Bill Heine, who sadly died last week, once said they resembled a public convenience and it was hard to disagree with him.

“This had an impact because it makes it difficult to get staff.

“The equipment was really old - we had linear accelerators (used in radiotherapy) that were over 20 years old.

“They would break down and we’d have to ring patients to say there’d be a break in your treatment and it got to the point where people were waiting months for treatment.

“You can imagine how awful that was.

“But it wasn’t until the early 2000s that we had a glimmer of hope.”

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Read also: Churchill Cancer Centre: "You’re not just a number to them, you’re a person"

By then the Labour party had announced capital funding for NHS hospitals through controversial Private Finance Initiatives (PFI) – a deal where a private firm would pay the initial costs for the development and the NHS trust would pay the money back over the long-term with interest.

Despite ultimately costing more, the PFI was the only way to make the improvements so desperately needed, says Dr Alcock.

And so a business case was developed by doctors, nurses and other staff before the eventual £120m development got under way in 2006.

The centre, which has around 2,000 staff, now provides diagnosis and treatment and surgery, for a range of tumours, support services for patients, a wig shop and an on-site centre of cancer charity Maggie's.

It has also provided a springboard for significant progress in the development of new techniques to combat the disease which kills around 164,000 people each year.

Read again: Staff raise funds for Churchill Cancer Centre to help mark 10th anniversary

An indication of the leading level of care provided and the potential life and death difference it can make can be found in the PET-CT service – recently put under threat by NHS England’s decision to privatise the service.

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PET-CT scans produce a highly accurate 3D image of inside the patient’s body and are used in diagnosis and monitoring treatment.

Surgeon and cancer lead at Oxford University Hospitals, Nick Maynard, said: “There was one particular patient referred who had had his scan done elsewhere and told it was inoperable. He requested a second opinion.

“We didn’t interpret the original PET-CT scan in the same way, so we repeated the PET-CT scan here with our better equipment and we clearly demonstrated it was not inoperable cancer and we then operated on it and got rid of his cancer.

“It was a great demonstration of the advantage of having a brilliant PET-CT service and we’ve got several examples of that.”

Advancements in key hole surgery and robotic surgery, where large operations are carried out through minute incisions at the tumour site, mean less pain for the patient and faster recovery, trials in immunotherapy (helping the body’s own immune system to fight cancer) and Gene Therapy should help dramatically improve survival rates and quality of life for patients in the future.

Mr Maynard said: “The success rate of treatments has improved massively since the cancer centre has been up and running.

“We’ve got world-class clinical work going on here, but we’ve also got world-class research by the university and Cancer Research UK.

“Some of the research programmes going on are world-leading in developing and understanding the molecular basis of the disease and therefore enabling things like immunotherapy and precision treatment and that can only be good for patients."