Ten months ago my breast cancer diagnosis served me a rather unsavoury banquet of treatment. A robust starter to my feast was a mastectomy and lymph node surgery which was closely followed by a generous helping of chemotherapy.
With little time to cleanse ones palate I was dished up the dessert to my treatment (yep, the radiotherapy…see what I did there?). Whilst the pudding wasn’t as tasty as a delicately prepared creme brulee I can report that radiotherapy was a whole lot easier than the first two courses were to stomach. Ok, so I still have to be in hospital every 3 weeks for the rest of 2019 (thanks to my hormone/protein hungry cancer) BUT I really feel that today is a big day. Today, Monday 18th March 2019, I finished 15 rounds of radiotherapy. I finished 15 rounds of radiotherapy. I finished 15 rounds of radiotherapy. Nope, not a typo, it just really hasn’t sunk in.
Actually yes it has, a bit, i’ve just had a tear.
I think the big deal for me is that after 10 long months, i’m no longer in the hardcore stages of cancer treatment (Dear Medical People – we really should rethink the word ‘treat’ment – little treats involved here apart from losing fanny hair). Anyway, that banquet is all consumed and now I can sit back and start to digest. Whilst I do that, here’s a bit of info about my Radiotherapy…
PS. Do me a quick favour and check your boobs today. Thanks in advance.
WHY DID I HAVE RADIOTHERAPY?
I really wondered why i’d need it if i’d had a mastectomy and chemotherapy – wasn’t that enough? Apparently for my diagnosis (Grade 3 invasive ductal) it’s all about belts and braces. Despite removing the breast tissue the doctors can never be sure that surgery has removed every single microscopic cancer cell. So the joy of radiotherapy is that it’s an effective way of zapping the life out of any rogue cells which may be loitering and prepping for another cancer party…that’s if the stubborn buggers haven’t been nuked by the chemo.
It’s worth knowing that around half of all cancer patients will have radiotherapy so it’s a really common procedure. According to Cancer Research UK radio is used for all different types of cancer and can be used to shrink/destroy cancer cells and/or alleviate symptoms.
HOW DOES RADIATION WORK FOR MY BREAST CANCER?
Unlike chemo which travels around your whole body mopping up bad cells, Radiotherapy is targeted on the area in question.
(left:the circular machine above me is what gives off the radiation Right:my view from the bed)
It gives off a painless and invisible high energy x-ray beam which radiates into your breast area for not even a minute…with one purpose…to kill cancer cells. In the words of Liam Neeson ‘I will look for you, I will find you and I will kill you’.
However, much like the film Taken, sometimes the good guys get killed too. Radiotherapy is not refined enough to leave good cells alone so that’s why my chest got a little sore afterwards.
HOW OFTEN DID I HAVE IT?
It seems very common in breast cancer to have radiotherapy every weekday for a number of weeks. The doctors take into account your particular diagnosis and what other treatments have been in your plan. For me, I had 15 rounds which were on consecutive days except weekends. The first session took about 45 minutes in total because there was a lot of adjusting and measuring going on but once that was done my sessions were only about 20 minutes. The actual zapping took less than a minute. The most time consuming thing was setting the machine up whilst you’re on the bed.
Easy. You strip off to your waist (unless you’re in for a different cancer of course – i’d be asking questions if you have knee cancer and they’re asking you to get your boobs out. Is knee cancer even a thing?). Earrings stay in but necklaces have to come off. The bed is hard and cold but I was always offered a blanket. Then you lie on your back with your arms in stirrups above your head. I then had to have a centimetre thick pad cellotaped to my chest. This acted like a fake layer of skin because the beam automatically goes in too far and they wanted to just focus on my skin surface area. Not everyone has to have this. Below is a short video of the machine moving around me.
Whilst the radiation takes place the radiographers leave the room and remain in constant contact with you. They’re controlling the machine from another area. Below is a picture of what they were looking at when treating me.
The top screen shows the xray image of my chest area and below that is the live image of me being given radiotherapy. Easy peasy.
WHAT ARE THE AFTER EFFECTS
Compared to chemo it really is a lot more manageable. That’s not to say I was cartwheeling around my living room but I found it so much easier. My main issue was the fatigue. Most days I felt pretty tired to the point of having to head back to bed for an hour (it wasn’t just an excuse to play the new word game i’ve found on my phone). Also, my breast area got quite sore. It felt like sunburn and was quite pink by day 10. I’ve spoken to some patients who have had blistering from radio but this didn’t happen to me. I’m writing this on my last day of treatment but i’ve been told that the tiredness and soreness can last for up to three weeks post-treatment. Yay.
BEFORE YOU START
I had to have a mapping scan about a week before my radiotherapy started. This is so that they could plan where the beams were going to target my chest. It’s essential that the radiation beam zaps me in the exact same spot so various measurements and images were taken. A bit like the radiotherapy itself, I had to strip down waist upwards and lie on a cold hard bed with my arms in stirrups above my head. It’s completely painless but a little chilly.
Since day 1 of radiation, I’ve been putting neat aloe vera gel (www.hollandandbarrett.com/shop/product/dr-organic-aloe-vera-gel-60083612) on my chest along with E45 cream (Boots). I repeat this three times a day. That’s all i’ve needed. I’ve spoken to other patients that suffered with the burning a lot more and said that putting a silk scarf over the skin helped with any rubbing from clothes. Also, it’s quite common to get itchy so taking an antihistamine can help (always check with your medical team first).
WHAT CAN YOU DO TO SUPPORT SOMEONE HAVING RADIOTHERAPY
*The schedule is more intense than the treatment itself. Offering lifts to and from the hospital is really helpful. Plus it’s always nice to have company.
*When the skin starts getting sore it can be difficult to drive so offering to pick up kids from school or run errands is so helpful
*Make them food every day and an apple crumble. I love an apple crumble. Nah just kidding, the food thing isn’t necessary at all. I just love my friend’s apple crumble.