Radiotherapy 101: a little down low on what radiotherapy entails. Basically it is very strong x-rays that are used to nuke (non technical term) tumours. It is very targeted which means that the side effects generally aren’t too bad (although that does depend on the length of treatment and where you have it). Radiotherapy is generally done over a series of days or weeks, on a daily basis until enough radiation has been given to shrink the tumour as far as possible whilst doing minimal damage to healthy surrounding tissue.
So, part one of my actual cancer treatment is complete, woohoo… radiotherapy on the tumour in my spine. The tumour there is the one causing me most problems right now; back pain, although surgery did help quite a lot with that, despite causing its own pain which is gradually improving, and my poor hand function as the tumour is pressing on the nerve that goes to my hands. So I was very positive about starting with this treatment as, while the bigger picture can be a little overwhelming at times, having an end goal of fixing those issues is a great thing to focus on right now.
The treatment began with a ‘planning’ session where they prepped me by tattooing me! As the treatment is so targeted, the key thing is that they aim the radiation to exactly the right place. I lay on a scanner and was measured in about a million different ways so they would know where to put me and how to set everything up for each treatment. The tattoo is a tiny dot as a final accuracy point for them to line up. I knew it was coming and it hadn’t bothered me at all, but I’d just assumed I would be lying on my front and so it would be on my back as that’s where the radiation was going. But no… actually I was lying on my back so the tattoo was done on my front. I know it sounds silly in the grand scheme of things, but I cried when it was done! I think it was that feeling of losing control as it wasn’t what I’d expected. The radiographer was so sweet and gave me a hug and I felt like a massive idiot haha. Anyway, I’m now embracing my new body art and thinking maybe I’ll get something tattooed over it in the future… it’s bang in the middle of my chest, so I’m thinking a little diamond. What do you reckon?!
The actual treatment started a few days later. I just had a short course over 5 days (daily with a break over the weekend). Each day, like with the planning, I lay on a bed and was measured all over to get me in the right spot. It felt a bit like being part of a NASA experiment or something (probably helped by the fact that the radiotherapy rooms at St Barts are all named after planets… I had a day in Saturn, two in Jupiter and two in Mercury). The radiotherapy itself was extremely quick (a few minutes) and totally painless- just like having an x-ray. Easy!
However, the way radiotherapy works is that in killing off the tumour cells, it inflames everything in the area. I’d been warned this would happen and that my pain was likely to increase, more and more each day, but I MASSIVELY underestimated this on day one! I was in agony afterwards. My poor husband and parents who were staying to help with Oscar had the full force of a VERY grumpy Caroline that evening… sorry guys!!! Next day I upped my pain meds (which to be fair I’d been told I’d probably need to do!) and day two and three weren’t nearly so bad. Unfortunately over the weekend, as the radiotherapy continued to increase inflammation further, my hand function deteriorated significantly which is so frustrating. It felt like a huge step backwards in my surgery recovery, but I just have to be patient as hopefully in a couple of weeks as the inflammation subsides I will start to see real improvement, although nerve regeneration can take months and only time will tell if there has been permanent damage.
I’m writing this the day after my final session and the pain is manageable given my meds have been increased, but my hands are the worst they’ve been which is very annoying. I’m typing this unbelievably slowly and am completely dependant on others to do a million little things for me. It’s definitely what I’m finding most challenging day to day as I’m such an independent person and rubbish at asking for help at any time! Radiotherapy can continue to do its thing for a couple of weeks after treatment so I just have to hang in there, but hopefully then everything will start to improve and I can come off the steroids that I hate and all the painkillers.
To support my body, I’m taking a couple of extra supplements; iodine is shown to have radio-protective action, and is something many of us don’t get naturally if you don’t live near the sea. I’m also taking Lion’s Mane which is a type of mushroom (I’m taking it in supplement form), for which there has been incredible research showing it can help with nerve regeneration. It is increasingly being used to support those with neural diseases such as Multiple Sclerosis. Beyond that, I’m doing my best to rest to allow my body to recuperate and get me as fit and well as possible ahead of starting chemotherapy which is planned for next week. I’ll have a PICC line inserted tomorrow (more about that on my next post), then my oncologist will see me on Monday to sign off me starting chemo on Tuesday. It’s the treatment that I have most reservations about, but I’ll talk more about that separately. For now, I’m off to watch the Great British Bake Off final that I missed last night! I might not be eating cake at the moment but I still love watching the show!
Planets image from pixabay.com