'Invisible' radiotherapy tattoos

Radiotherapy tattoos

Our supporters have helped fund research into using fluorescent ink tattoos as an alternative method to using dark ink tattoos during radiotherapy treatment.

Breast cancer patients receiving radiotherapy currently require two or more visible dark ink tattoos to allow their targeted radiotherapy position to be accurately reproduced during the course of treatment. However in life outside hospital, these visible radiotherapy references act as a continuing reminder of treatment and can cause psychological distress to the patient. They can also impact a patient’s long-term cosmetic outcome since they are permanent.

As a consequence some patients elect to have either laser treatment or biopsies to remove their tattoos. Some even refuse tattoos altogether, which could compromise the accuracy of their radiotherapy treatment. The development of fluorescent ink tattoos has therefore greatly improved the treatment experience for breast cancer patients.

Groundbreaking research

In order to address these issues, the charity helped to fund a study that looked at the possibility of using tattoos that are only visible in ultraviolet light (UV). UV inks have been used for recreational tattoos for some time but more recently uses in the medical setting have been explored.

Our pilot study identified that fluorescent ink tattoos are an effective method of reproducing a patient’s treatment position, ensuring that radiotherapy treatment could be accurately delivered each time. Our results, which were published in the British Journal of Radiology, have also been presented nationally and internationally.

The difference this will make to patients

This technique has the potential to help many different patients. It may benefit younger patients who may find the effect of dark tattoos on body image more upsetting.

As well as breast cancer patients, it could be used for other body sites where tattoos are also used in visible areas.

Giving patients a choice

The findings from this study have led to the implementation of fluorescent tattoos as routine clinical practice at The Royal Marsden since spring 2015, meaning patients receiving breast/chest wall radiotherapy now have the choice of invisible markings. We are one of only a very few centres worldwide that offer this service.

Your support

Supporters of The Royal Marsden Cancer Charity funded the cost of this research.

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“Fluorescent ink tattoos are only visible in ultraviolet light, but had never been clinically tested”
– Stephen Landeg, Senior Radiographer, The Royal Marsden