Women crippled by cancer therapy lose their claims for damages

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The Independent Online
TWO WOMEN who each lost the use of an arm following radiotherapy treatment for breast cancer yesterday had their claims for damages rejected by the High Court.

Ethel Robb, 78, of Chingford, north-east London, and Susan Unitt, 51, of Guernsey, who were both treated for the disease 18 years ago, stood to receive between pounds 100,000 and pounds 250,000 had negligence been proved. The decision is a setback for more than 100 other women among more than 1,000 estimated to have suffered similar damage, who are seeking compensation.

The women claimed that they suffered injury as a result of negligence in the way the radiotherapy was carried out. They were the last of 10 test cases brought following an independent inquiry by the Royal College of Radiologists in 1995, the remainder of which were settled out of court or withdrawn.

The inquiry, set up at the request of the Department of Health , concluded that a small number of women suffered damage mainly because they were moved during treatment sessions, increasing the risk of an overlap between the areas irradiated which received a double dose. Guidelines were sent to all radiotherapy departments recommending that patients should be treated in a fixed position and that special care should be taken over the dosage to the armpit and lower neck.

Yesterday, the judge, Mrs Justice Ebsworth, praised both women for their "remarkable and courageous efforts" to come to terms with the pain and disability which had become constant features of their lives. But she held that the treatment they received was "responsible by the standards of the time", although it would not necessarily be acceptable today.

"In each case, over so many years, the primary purpose of destroying the original disease and holding back its recurrence has, fortunately, been achieved," said the judge. "The price, it can now be seen, has been in all probability higher than would be paid today, but it was not paid as the result of negligent prescription or treatment."