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
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
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 fragilisé 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
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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