After being told that three out of the four machines were down that day and the delay was two hours long, one look at my horrified face (after interrupting me in full flow of IT demo with Doris and Pete) it was quickly decided that I should return the next day and start afresh. I left feeling totally drained and practically wheel spinned out of the car park much to the disapproval of Mr Car Park Attendant who was still loitering around.
The next day I didn’t take any chances. Luckily, I had had some reflexology booked in and after tearfully recounting the day to my counsellor of a reflexologist, and having a fantastic calming session, I was packed off armed (and dangerous), with a holster of aromatherapy oils to sniff on various tissues, books to read, iPads to write on and headphones to drown out the voices, while listening to calming meditations I had spent hours downloading the night before.
Unlike the day before, I swung freely into my ‘special’ parking space after making sure Mr Car Park Attendant wasn’t around and skipped confidently into the ward and literally stopped dead in my tracks. There was no one there. Not a soul. It may as well have been a completely different hospital. A lovely Sister promptly came over and invited me into a private room to chat and go over my treatment plan and x rays, apologising profusely and explaining that the day before barely ever happens! It was like I was in a parallel universe.
This was only exaggerated by the general feeling of surrendering to aliens as I climbed aboard the radiotherapy machine a mere few minutes later. After undressing and putting on the all too familiar blue dotted hospital gown and waiting briefly back in the same chair as previously, I was called into my assigned treatment room. The machine’s formal name is a Linear Accelerator (doesn’t it even sound sci fi?!) and it’s similarity to some sort of spaceship was ironic. With a long tongue that is actually the treatment bed you lie on, I felt like ET about to hover off to some other planet somewhere.
The LINAC uses electricity to form a stream of fast-moving subatomic particles. This creates high-energy radiation that may be used to treat cancer.
Lying on my back with my arms above my head (and prepared for another dose of pins and needles!) I would stare above me, feeling as if I was lying beneath some space ship, looking up at this huge machine that was about to spit out radioactive light right at me and beam me up! The radiation therapist would make all the checks, lining me up accurately. I had to keep absolutely still for the entire time, so itchy noses were a definite no no! The area measured on my body was reflected in the pattern on the lens above me which covered a large area of my sternum, chest and throat. I had also been warned that it may cause burning to my back too as the rays go straight through to the other side. Well, what do you know, I get a lovely brown left shoulder blade too, better get out the after sun!!
The whole procedure reminds me of launching a space rocket, or indeed a UFO! Once all the checks match and are so bang on there is no room for error, the machine turns on and the unit above is lowered down towards me. 5,4,3,2,1! Houston we have lift off! I’m not claustrophobic but its a strange thing, feeling as if you are about to be sandwiched between two pieces of rather heavy medical equipment. Talk about personal space! Once this is at the exact height necessary, the alarm starts buzzing and a red warning light flashes on the wall and the therapists leave the room. It’s like a mini evacuation process, except you are the only one left behind while the radioactive light is beamed through you. I always found this bit tricky as I always felt rather alone and isolated. With eyes shut tight, I would breathe deeply and surrender to the medicine, letting it do its work.
During treatment the radiation therapist continuously watches the patient through a closed-circuit television monitor. There is also a microphone in the treatment room so that the patient can speak to the therapist if needed. Port films (x-rays taken with the treatment beam) or other imaging tools are checked regularly to make sure that the beam position doesn’t vary from the original plan.
The buzzing sound that resonates from the machine as it radiates through the skin is loud and bloody annoying! As I would lie there feeling like some kind of cardboard cut out, I would do some visualisation. I learnt a lot about the use of this during my periods of treatment. It was so important for me to take myself out of the clinical environment and imagine fluffy and positive things! I would visualize the rays successfully burning any rogue cells away some days and others I would like to imagine lying on a beach while the light would be the sun shining down on me and filling me with glorious white light, while ignoring the harsh buzzing that I would pretend was an aeroplane flying over or something equally as irritating!!! The imagination ran wild!
The high-energy radiation used during radiotherapy permanently damages the DNA of cancer cells, causing them to die.
Nearby healthy tissues also suffer temporary cell damage from radiation but these cells are usually able to repair the DNA damage and continue growing normally.
This time around my side effects were a lot more obvious. As the treatment affected the sternum and bottom of the throat area, I did find it hard to eat after a couple of weeks. I wrote in my diary two weeks after starting;
‘My chest is feeling dry today and Ive noticed when Im busy or tired, like often in the early afternoon, my throat and chest feel sensitive, sore and dry. The skin is a little red and sore and Im much more aware of it…… I feel a bit frayed around the edges’
– Diary 18th September 2012
I remember that eating a chicken curry took an hour and not because it was spicy! It felt like I was swallowing rocks. I had embarked on a mindfulness course at The Haven and we had to do an exercise about eating mindfully. This, for me, was not a problem while undergoing radio on this area and I could use the time chewing relentlessly to ponder all things mindful before swallowing and wondering why I hadn’t just made soup!!! I was quite sunburnt on my chest and shoulder bone behind and a small cold turned into a painful chest infection since it went straight to the weakest area of me, but with doctors on hand and nurses checking up on me every day, I could take medication to help more affectively than normal and advice was simply to just take it easy. Always easier said than done! It was tiring, trying to have as normal a routine as possible with a new home, village and small child, while the anxiety and side effects bubbled under the surface, literally!
Despite all this, I met some amazing people while waiting in that corridor. I realized that there is so little written about radiotherapy from a patients point of view, and what it involves. I wanted to share that with others because even though it is part of a cancer treatment, it is an incredibly clever, complex treatment that is so much less invasive and though more clinical than chemo it tends to be more straight forward and less time consuming on a daily basis then one may imagine. Bizarrely, there was another young girl who it turned out I had been to sixth form college with and we would reminiss about our media trip to Paris and often comment on how we felt so young in that corridor. It was wonderful having her around and she gave me great strength being there to either welcome me out of the session or wave me goodbye as I went in. I felt very lucky to have had a hand to hold during that time.
Any cancer treatment is challenging. Its putting you and your life under a microscope and monitoring you from day to day, in a zone totally out of the comfortable! It can be tedious and the side effects can be taxing but it is there to help your body fight a disease that it cant necessarily do alone. Being in the hospital every day, with all those different patients, taught me that medicine is a wonderland itself. It is constantly changing, improving and saving lives. There is so much going on behind the scenes and I have witnessed this now a few times! It is amazing what it can do and our own individual experiences of it can only prove to us how inspiring it is. As traumatic, frustrating, scary and alien it can be at times, these experiences have enriched my life and made me think so differently. As I write this now and reflect, I only hope that those other patients my path briefly crossed with in that corridor over those seven weeks, are well and happy and that dear Pete finally got his ipad! X
Over the course of all my cancer experiences I kept a diary. These are the blogs I have written from the thoughts and feelings I recorded there. xx