[Guest Post] Radiotherapy – zapping the little buggers

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See for me it was always the chemo that was the most scary bit about having breast cancer.

I never really worried about the longer term prognosis, I always presumed (and still do) that I would get better and carry on living my life to the full – but the idea of having chemo and flooding my body full of  poison (albeit well meaning) just scared the bejeezus out of me.

So when it turned out that I also had aplastic anaemia (where your bone marrow fails to produce enough blood cells) as well as breast cancer and because of this I couldn’t have chemo, I was in some ways relieved.

When I came to having Radiotherapy I wasn’t that concerned about it.  A friend of mine had been through it and mentioned how it was quite tiring and that she got some ‘sunburn’ like marks – but despite this she had managed to work throughout it all.  To her it was just another step towards the end of treatment.  Another friend who is a radiotherapist, gave me some good tips on creams to use and explained how it was all done.

It was suggested that I should have 25 fractions (blasts) as I hadn’t had chemo – to try and make sure the treatment would get rid of any rogue cancer cells that might be lurking around.  It was also decided that the first 20 fractions would be with a ‘bolus’ (or bling bolus as my radiotherapists called it!). This is a sheet of what looks like chain mail (think of those tops you sometimes see girls wearing on a night out) that sits over your skin and makes the radiotherapy more concentrated.

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The treatment meant that I would need to attend the radiotherapy centre daily for 5 weeks (with weekends off for good behaviour!). The centre was newly built and heading down there for my set up appointment I was nervous but also happy to get on with it. The staff were lovely and talked through the entire process with me. It took a while to get the machines lined up properly (the radiation blasts have to be very precise) and then they had to give me 3 permanent black marks (kinda like a tiny tattoo) to enable them to line up the machine properly each time.  Now I have quite a lot of tattoos so this wasn’t a problem but it is still strange to have a mark from treatment that will always remind me of what I’ve been through.

After the ‘set up’ I had to wait a few weeks to start treatment. Patience has never been a great virtue of mine and so when the day finally came to get going I was ready for it.  My wonderful mum had come to look after my daughter and I for the period of treatment as we didn’t know how I was going to feel. This was a great weight off my mind as it gave me a chance to focus on myself, something which doesn’t come easily.

I met a friend for coffee on the morning of the first blast and made lots of plans for the next few weeks to help her out with fundraising and all sorts of other stuff, not realising how I would react to the treatment..

Being an avid photographer I’d been taking lots of hospital selfies and other photos to document my treatment. They kept me amused and I thought it would be interesting to look back on one day when I’m old and grey.   So on went my gown, a selfie was taken, and I went into the room for my first blast.

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The radiographers were incredibly friendly and helped put me at ease. I found that the setup of the radiotherapy, getting you in the right position etc, was much longer than the actual blast!  I was soon finished and off home. Within a few hours I started to feel quite hot around the area where the radiation had been directed but nothing too severe.  I had already been on hormone suppressants for a month and was in the full swing of hot flushes so this wasn’t anything new!

After about 5 sessions of radiation my skin started to get very sore.

They give you some great creams to combat the soreness and a good friend of mine had also sent me some aloe vera gel that was working a treat.

I was also getting very tired.

They call it fatigue, and to be honest before the radiotherapy I had never really experienced it before. I am a busy mum, and my daughter (now nearly 7) hardly slept until she was well over 1, so I know tired!  I understand sleep deprivation, and how your body and mind still just about function on no sleep – but this was different. Fatigue is like being incredibly tired for no valid reason, your legs feel like they are made out of lead – almost as if you are walking through treacle. Your head is foggy and you are operating on minimum capacity – yet you haven’t done anything.

Over the next few weeks it was a mighty battle of wills to get myself up, dressed, out and to that hospital over and over again. My mind and body were confused, ‘but this doesn’t feel right, and it hurts and we don’t want to go again!’ but I had to keep going. I knew that as long as I kept turning up, getting blasted, using the cream, getting looked after by people I loved and trying to sleep as much as I could, then it would soon be over.

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Luckily I had the support of those around me to be able to keep going. 

Throughout all of my treatment I have felt an overwhelming sense of love and support from people in my life and while undergoing radiotherapy that was no different. Friends and family sent flowers, chocolates and even gin! My cousin sent me a daily joke/pun and virtual hugs each day and a goody bag for when I finished. My mum and boyfriend were on hand at home to look after me – and most importantly my daughter.  I found that all of these things really helped me to stay positive and to get through each day.

Out of the 25 sessions, I only missed one, but soon enough the radiotherapy was over.  I had some pretty bad burns over my left chest area, so much so that it looked like I had been branded with a square flat iron, but I continued to use the cream and slowly started to get my energy back.  By Christmas time (a month after my radiotherapy finished) I felt well enough to enjoy the day with my wonderful family and looked forward to the New Year.

The radiation marks are still there. They have caused me some complications with regards to a reconstruction, but apart from that they just add to the many changes, scars, and marks that have become part my treatment & my story.

My scars remind me daily to look after my body, to love those around me, and to take every opportunity to experience joy and happiness and to minimise stress.  I would say that whether you are reading this as someone who has just been diagnosed with breast cancer or as a friend or family member looking to give support just remember that things do get better.

No matter how dark the night may seem, the sun will always rise again.

written by Sarah McLoughlin

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