In response to those who have asked, I thought I would try and demystify the process of radiotherapy. Most women who have breast cancer undergo this – also called radiation treament. It is also used to treat many other types of cancer. I had my course of radiotherapy after finishing my primary rounds of chemotherapy in 2011. And this is the way it went….
First step in the treatment schedue is a “planning meeting”. The treatment team require this to happen a month before starting radiation, to get all systems in place.
As we were living in Rockhampton at the time, the nearest treatment centre was is Brisbane – some 600 kilometres south. So between cycles 5 and 6 of chemo ( when side effects have built up and are pretty much at there worst!), my husband and I caught the 6.30am flight down to Brisbane and then taxi to the hospital for a 9.30am meeting.
I was there given information about the treatment plan, and taken into a room full of technicians and doctors. At least eight of them ( I’m sure the cleaner had been invited too) gathered around the skinny bed where I lay topless. They proceeded to poke and prod my poor old left breast. They attatched wires to it and xrays were done. Next marks were made on old boobie, and photos taken. And scans. And it was traced onto a sheet of plastic. And a few changes in position and all done again. By now we were all old friends! Which is just as well, for now came the tattoo gun. Yes two small tattoos were made. I asked for hearts, but artisic flair was missing, and I got dots. ( I just cheked – yep, still there and just dots). My first appointment was made for 3 weeks after my final chemo session, and we were able to fly home that afternoon.
So. The time came for me to begin, with a schedule for 30 shots of radiaton, monday to friday for 6 weeks. The Linear Accelertors that give the radiation are very busy machines. There are 4 of them at the Royal Brisbane, and they work all week from 7 am until 10 pm. This means appointments can be at any time within that frame. Each patient has all their treatment on the same machine – I was ascribed to LAC 3. I requested daytime appointments as I would not have transport apart from my own two legs. Only twice did I have to walk in the dark.
I was very blesssed to be able to stay in accomodation provided by the Cancer Council. It was a lovely self contained room with a kitchenette, and at very little cost to me. There was also access to a full equipped kitchen and laundry. The complex provides a wonderful service to many families from all over the state, and I am very grateful. My darling husband was able to be with me for the first few days, before returning to Rocky for work. He also returned for the last week, which was lovely. I was pretty weary by then.
Each week day I would walk down to the hospital at the appointed time and wait my turn. When called, I would go around to the change cubicles, where I had a small cubbyhole in which was kept my stylish purple hospital gown. This I put on with the opening at the front. A technician would then lead me into the room with LAC 3. While I lay on the very hard narrow bed, two technicians would position the bed and myself in a very specific placement. Arm above the head, gown off one side. Then 2 cm left, 9 cm up, head over……etc , until the co ordinates matched those devised in the planning meeting, and the laser beams were positioned exactly. Once satisfied, the technicians would leave the room to go to the protected room where they could see me and operate the LAC without being exposed to the radiation themselves. If the readings did not match exactly, they woulld come in again to get the position perfect. Each time they left the room, an alarm beeped 16 and a half times. When all was set, the actually radiation was administered. This took less than ten minutes, during which the machine whirred and moved around the target and cast it’s deadly beam. The technicians then returned to reposition the bed so that I could make my escape until the next day. Each week I also had a consultation with a Radiation Oncologist.
The radiation treatment damages the skin – it’s a bit like getting badly sun burned every day for thirty days. To minimise damage, I applied creams as advised three times a day. Moo Goo and a mixture of calendula and comfrey ointment helped a lot,, and I had no blistering or skin breakdown. I do , however, have a two tone breast, as the skin that was irradiated remains a little darker. The other major side effect is fatigue. It takes the body a lot of energy to repair damaged tisssue, leaving a defecit for other things
All in all, radiation is a lot more pleasant than chemotherapy – the hardest thing was being away from home for six weeks. I am very grateful for the staff who were unfailingly kind and patient, and the wonderful Cancer Council staff who provided a home away from home for that time.
Phew, this has been a wordy missive. Hope it has helped you understand what so many people experience along their cancer journey.