On Radiotherapy

This week six years ago I began the course of radiotherapy which was to mark the final chapter of my treatment for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. I had spent the early part of the summer resting and recuperating from the chemotherapy infusions I had been given between February and May. Very slowly, my energy began to return and my spirits lifted. I began to watch my hair grow again. In delight at this I started a moustache growing competition with a close friend. I may even have drunk some wine.

I did not know, however, if I still had cancer or not. My consultant spoke of my being in a ‘partial remission’. I know they meant this to sound both straightforward and encouraging, but I heard it in my head as ‘We haven’t got rid of it yet’.

I was sent for a PET scan, where ‘evidence of activity’ was detected on what was left of my tumour. I was sent, with my notes, for a meeting in the oncology department, with a different consultant. Up to now, all of my treatment had taken place in the heamatology unit on the other side of the corridor.

The first difference between the two was that in the oncology waiting room a television was left on showing dreadful daytime TV: Flog It!, Diagnosis Murder, Doctors, as though unaware of how wretched we already felt. The main difference between chemotherapy and radiotherapy is far more profound. A friend who had been treated for breast cancer some years before me, and had ungergone the ‘double whammy’ of both treatments, described it as going from being a princess to a pork chop.

Chemotherapy, for all its dreadfulness, is social. A nurse sits with you and injects you by hand, talking to and reassuring you. Radiotherapy is mechanistic. First you are given full-stop-sized tattoos on your body. I had four. These act as a guide for the technicians who manipulate your flesh in line with the upside down periscope image which the linac (linear accelerator) machine makes before it blasts you. They have to get this completely accurate every single time, so there is no time for small talk.

Instead they call out random-sounding numbers to each other over your body. While these are vital, relating to the distance of the machine to you and to the ‘target’, the effect is to make you feel you aren’t really there.

Once I reached up to scratch my nose while they manipulated me. This sent my body out of sync by millimeters, but it meant the whole process had to be started from scratch, in this case in icy silence.

The technicians then leave, at which point you are aware of a radio playing in the corner. Like the TV in the waiting room, the juxtaposition of high-tech equipment and sentimentality is jarring. My favourite of all the tunes I was zapped to was ‘Flashdance…What a Feeling’ by Irene Cara.

The doctors do their best to warn you about the fatigue and the depression you experience as radiotherapy progresses, but nothing really prepares you for the shock of it. There is one thing to be said for radiotherapy, and everybody says it: when the door closes and the buzzer sounds, you really don’t feel a thing.

You can read more about my experience of cancer in Riddance, out now from Worple Press. You can also look out for my forthcoming memoir of cancer, Love for Now, due out in September from Impress Books.

Love for Now

You can read about my experience of diagnosis here

You can read about my experience of chemotherapy here

You can read about my experience of remission here

You can read about my experience of misdiagnosis of relapse here

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