Thursday, 2 April 2015

So How Was Radiotherapy?

It was April Fools' Day but the nurses weren't kidding when they said goodbye - I have reached the end of a long road.  Nine months after my diagnosis at the end of June last year, I completed my last radiotherapy session on April 1st.

Nine months?  Was it really so long?  Time has taken on that strange quality when it seems impossible that I have lived under the shadow of cancer for so many months and yet, at the same time, my diagnosis feels a lifetime ago.

I have posted rarely during the last few weeks for the simple reason that radiotherapy has bitten deeply into my free time: the hospital was a good 40 minute drive on good traffic days and having daily treatments means the days vanish quickly. 

But that was merely a logistical issue.  The radiotherapy itself has been quick, easy and painless.  Every day I arrived at hospital, got my hospital-issue-but- fluffy dressing gown out of my locker (not sure the NHS would give this arriving-at-a-spa feeling, my Europa hospital here in Brussels felt decidedly posh).  Most mornings I had a short wait before being called into a cubical to strip to the waist, put on the dressing gown and continue through to the radiotherapy room itself.  They would prepare the table so that I could take off the dressing gown and lie on my back with my arms up behind my head on supports. 

The most difficult part of the process was getting me in position with several staff pushing me a fraction this way and then that while beams of infra-red light bounced weirdly on the lines painted on my chest.  It seemed a millimetre-precise process so, once in position, I had to stay very, very still.  There was a lovely photo of trees lit by sunshine on the ceiling of my radiotherapy room: I am now familiar with pretty much every twig.

Not that the zapping bit took that long: everyone else would clear the room and then the machine would move around and make killer-robot-gun noise at me, fortunately entirely painlessly, for around twenty minutes.  Then everyone would bustle back, let the table down and that was that.

And side effects?  I saw the radiologist for a last check up this week and he had a long list of questions.  Do you have swollen hands?  No.  Pain in the armpits? No.  Respiratory problems?  No.  Bone pain?  No.  Redness on the skin?  Well, a little bit.  Soreness?  A little sensitivity: as if I have sat in the sun a bit longer than I should.  But dryness, flaking skin, itchiness?  No, none of the above.  

It made me realise how many possible side effects there are and how (almost embarrassingly) lightly the radio seems to have affected me.

And finally, fatigue?  Like at the end of chemo?  Well, yes, I'm pretty tired.  But bone-draggingly exhausted like back in early Jan when I'd look at the stairs and wonder if I could make it to the top?  No, nothing like that.  And to be completely honest, the few hectic weeks have been decidedly socially hectic so I'm not too surprised to feel tired.

My skin is now fragilis√© as they say here, so I will need to use lotion on it for the rest of my life and be a bit extra careful with the sun.  But all in all, the radio couldn't have gone better.  Has it worked?  Its purpose is largely preventative so only time will tell - but the doctors are confident that the chance of recurrence is as low as it could be.

Next: Tamoxifen. I took my first tablet nervously.  Who knows what side effects the next few weeks will bring? I know that some women find this part really tough.  And others don't.   As always, the scariest thing about cancer treatments is the what ifs...  So all I can do is swallow the pill and be glad that I don't have to drive anywhere and sit in waiting rooms for this part of the treatment.

Meanwhile I was rather shocked to walk out of my oncologist's office and realise that I have NO MORE doctor's appointments until my first check up in July!  It feels both liberating and terrifying to be let loose alone in the world without a doctor to hold my hand.  My oncologist recognised the mixed feelings, however.  He warned that the next few months, just when you would expect cancer patients to be wild with joy, can often be a period of depression.  I guess we have to shift from fighting mode, from being the rock-star-status-cancer-victim among our friends, to getting on with normal life again.  If we can remember what normal life looks like.
Fortunately my lovely hospital tries to help with this by continuing to offer twice weekly exercise classes, so I get the benefit of exercise (and amazingly I always feel better about everything after a class despite being very non-sporty all my life, what a revelation!) as well as seeing other cancer ladies and not having to wean myself off the comfortingly familiar smell of hospital corridors just yet.

Better still, thanks to the classes I am in better physical shape than I was nine months ago when I was diagnosed.  My hair continues to grow - I have a dark, shaven-jailbird hairstyle just now, not quite ready for public viewing yet but getting that way - and my eyebrows (once down to three hairs in total) and eyelashes (which went entirely) are nearly back to normal.  

And I'm sitting peacefully at my computer with a cup of coffee without having to rush to get out the door for my next appointment.  I don't know what cocktail of emotions will hit me over the weeks to come but right this moment, life feels good.

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