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Last Updated: Thursday, 18 October 2007, 11:40 GMT 12:40 UK
Cancer patients' battle for justice
By Emma Jane Kirby
BBC News, Epinal

Earlier this year, a major scandal erupted in France when it was discovered that between 1989 and 2006, two radiotherapy units had accidentally given hundreds of cancer patients too high a dose of radiation. Five patients have since died and many others have been left in crippling pain.

A woman picks up patient files
The search for patients that may have been affected continues
Walking into the closed radiotherapy unit at Epinal hospital felt exactly like the moment when the front curtain lifts on a Samuel Beckett play.

The audience sees the sparse props and unforgiving backdrop and senses the desolation to come.

In the dimly lit hospital corridor, an abandoned wheelchair had been dumped among stacked crates and cardboard boxes, which were spewing out uneven brown paper files. Two or three women in white coats moved noiselessly through the cartons, picking out random papers and taking them to the photocopier.

Hundreds of cancer patients - perhaps many more - were burnt by high energy X-rays which were meant to cure them
The cancer unit is never the cheeriest ward of a hospital, but the staff members are always careful to be upbeat and positive.

With no-one around to need reassuring, though, the usual chatter at the Epinal radiotherapy department had been silenced and the atmosphere felt eerie and heavy with hushed secrets.

Radiation excess

But what happened here is no longer a secret.

In this unit, hundreds of cancer patients - perhaps many more - were burnt by high-energy X-rays, which were meant to cure them.

Radiotherapy machine
Instructions for using the machine were in English rather than French
Radiotherapy treats cancer by using strong X-rays to destroy cancer cells while doing as little harm as possible to normal cells.

Set the dose too high, however, and normal cells can be irreparably damaged.

At least 24 people who were treated here accidentally received 20% more than the amount they should have received.

Five of those have died and the rest now have acute health problems.

More than 700 patients received around 8% more than they should have and it has recently come to light that hundreds of others may also have been put at risk.

Hence the painstaking search by the white-coated women through the old paper files, the incessant trips to the photocopier and the carefully worded letters of regret.

Victims' campaign

Among the names on those cardboard folders is that of prostate cancer sufferer Philippe Stabler.

Philippe Stabler
Philippe Stabler's health is still affected by the radiation treatment
He is the kind of man who exudes warmth and affability and who is solicitous about his guests' comfort.

He is constantly stoking his fire for us, and when he realises our cameraman does not speak French, he tries to make jokes about the rugby in English to make sure he is included.

No wonder this is the man who has founded and is fronting an association for all the radiotherapy victims.

He flicks through a book of press cuttings and laughs at a photo of himself in which his eyes look a bit red.

"I was crying just before that was taken," he says. "I asked them to stop taking my picture but the photographers said not to worry because they'd Photoshop it - they'd digitally alter it".

If only they could patch over what is happening to Mr Stabler's insides as well.

After receiving an excessive dose of radiation during his cancer treatment, part of Mr Stabler's lower intestine is now ulcerated.

The radiotherapists who administered the treatment have been suspended, the radiotherapy units shutdown
I asked him what it means in his day -to-day life and he reddened, apologised for the scatological detail, and said it means he now has a very close relationship with the lavatory.

He talked of pain and blood and admitted that it is now a to risk drive the hour between home and work because he cannot trust his bowels to hold out anymore.

Quite suddenly he began to cry.

Translation problems

When he had recovered his composure, he insisted other victims were suffering far more than he was.

A woman treated seven years ago for breast cancer, is still sleeping with a bag of ice on her chest each night to calm the burning.

Map of France showing Epinal and Paris
A son watching his father die in an old people's home in the horrific knowledge that, just like his father, he has also accidentally received an overdose of radiation.

A major investigation is now under way to try to establish how so many mistakes could have been made.

The radiotherapists who administered the treatment have been suspended, the radiotherapy units shut down and the machinery overhauled or replaced.

Incredibly, one of the lines of inquiry will be why the instruction booklets that accompanied the equipment were in English when the hospital staff of course were French.

Compensation battle

In the Jean Monnet hospital, I watched the technician tinker silently with the radiotherapy machine while the white-coated women methodically combed through the files, their faces blank.

And so begins the long battle for compensation.

I ask Philippe Stabler what he wants to happen next, what he is waiting for.

He smiles at me and gently strokes his grey moustache: "I want to hear the word sorry," he says simply.

"But I just hope we'll all still be around when it's finally said."

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Thursday 18 October, 2007 at 1100 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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