Ed, an old mate from advertising days called me up the other day to ask me what radiotherapy was like. I was on his very niche call list of ‘people I like who’ve had radiotherapy’ because he might have to face it himself soon. So, this is for Ed.
The first thing you learn before you start having radio, or any cancer treatment for that matter, is that everyone reacts differently and there’s no way of predicting how your body will respond. So, you’ll get a list of potential symptoms, which you may or may not get, and you’ll promptly disregard said list because you just assume that this is a list for everyone else and you, for some reason, are exempt. Probably because the list is ‘exaggerated’ or, more likely, you don’t want the symptoms.
And then you might find yourself actually quite liking the routine of radiotherapy, or at least coping better than you might imagine. You’ll have a block-booking of sessions, delivering a whopping dose over time, broken down into smaller hits your body can tolerate. You’ll trot in each day and leave and, for the most part, probably feel OK.
Personally, I quite liked radiotherapy. I liked the routine of going in every day, even though it was a different time most days and nearly an hour in to the hospital and an hour back. I took good coffee. Dressed nicely. Lippy on. Radio 4 in the car. Bought a crap magazine on the way in, got angry at the magazine on the way out for being crap. I had a pink ticket for free parking for the duration (which always made me feel like I’d got one over on the general population, one fleeting moment). I felt well. I had that feeling of doing well, marking them down day by day, conquering. I started to take personal credit for the radiotherapy machine blitzing the cancer cells and personal pride built daily. I bought myself little sweet treats from WHsmith on the way out. Often chocolate. Go me. One more done. Little kick of the heels on the way out.
I liked the big radio machine thing. A-sexual, futuristic and bulbous-cute, and usually called something less friendly but reassuringly techy like Varian 6, it was a lot less intimidating than I thought it would be. Think baby of Starship Enterprise and Wall-E.
Invisible gamma rays blast invisible cancer cells, painlessly, noiselessly, quickly, just in the bits of you that need it, and off you trot again till the next dose (gallopy gallopy). So far as treatment goes surely it’s the kindest, the one that makes the most sense, none of this complete whole-body fuckery like chemo or hormone treatment.
There is that tits out business though. I arrive and I’m directed to a bit of wall in the radiotherapy room that has a modesty curtain to de-robe. I strip to the waist and hang my top and bra on the hook. I am given, for the first few sessions, basically a bit of kitchen roll to cover my boobs for the short walk (4 paces tops) from the shelter of the modesty curtain to the radiotherapy bench. From there, you hand the piece of kitchen roll back to the radiographer that gave it to you 4 paces previously, & lie down. He or she puts the kitchen roll in the bin. There comes a point where I don’t bother with the modesty curtain or the kitchen roll but it never stops feeling odd walking those 4 paces topless across the room and doing “Good Mornings” and ‘how was your weekends” . Just less absurd than going through the kitchen roll rigmarole.
Arms over head in the stirrups. boobs out. Your team need to line your body up to the lazer beams to make sure Varian 6 has been rigged up to your dimensions. You’re not supposed to assist in any way so need to master the art of lying there like a lifeless naked cadaver whilst they inch you about. Your people have to get in nice and close here. Sometimes you can feel their breath on you. Sometimes you realise you haven’t shaved your pits or have forgotten to wear deodorant. Or they, evidently.
And then everyone evacuates the room to the loud beeps of the ‘last man out’ button ( “saaaaave yooourselves”), and you are left with your breathing and your thoughts. I kept it basic. Best not to think too much about what’s really happening. What’s for lunch? My fingers have pins and needles. I need a wee.
And then on your last day, you might, for some unfathomable reason, which takes you completely by surprise, because obviously you’ve been doing perfectly well, cry. Perhaps because you feel like these lovely amazing NHSers that you’ve got to know are like your saviours and you’ll never see them again, and you’ll make some joke to that effect, that you hope you don’t, see them again I mean, even as you’re saying it knowing full well it’s probably been said 1000 times before and everyone who says it thinks they’re really funny for saying it. But you can’t think of anything else to say because obviously it’s about more than that. Or you won’t. And then when you leave, you’ll either feel really up-beat and air-punchy, or you might just feel a bit flat and think, “right then”.
And then your skin will probably get worse, that’s a certainty, because that’s the one thing you DO remember the nurse saying, that it will get worse before it gets better. It’ll either be awful, less than awful or maybe OK. You’ll either be a bit tired or absolutely shattered, maybe a bit in between, but most certainly occasionally wiped out and not quite your usual self, but no one can advise you which way it’ll go, you’ll just stumble over your own symptoms when they stop dead in front of you. And that will be annoying because you thought you’d got away with it and you wish you’d taken the nurse seriously or at least not chucked the bloody leaflet in the bin.
But one way or another you’ll come out the other side of it, and after a while, realise that what just happened feels bigger now than it did then and you’ll think, “well, that was alright wasn’t it? We did it, my body and I”.
And you’ll feel quite proud of yourself. Which you should.
And that’s radiotherapy. Well, it’s how it was for me which means it won’t be like that for you. And it’s quite boob specific, so probably not that helpful, given you don’t have breast cancer. But otherwise, hope that helps a bit Ed.
Good luck mate,