When my doctor first told me I had cancer, I didn’t even know they use radiotherapy to treat cancer. I was so clueless!
So when my oncologist said I’d need 25 doses of external and two doses of internal radiation treatments, I had no idea what to expect.
How Does Radiotherapy Work?
Like chemotherapy, oncologists use radiotherapy to destroy cancer cells and prevent it from coming back. However, it works differently from chemo. Chemo drugs work throughout the body with the aim to stop cancer from metastasising (regrowing in a different location). Radiation sterilises a localised area. In my case, it was the abdomen and the pelvis.
It is given using X-rays, and the delivery was completely painless. The X-rays damage the cells that divide and grow fast. Your doctors and nurses design the treatment for each patient during a planning scan to limit damage to normal cells. The normal cells can recover from any potential damage, but cancer cells can’t.
The Long List Of Side-Effects
Since I was totally clueless about radiotherapy as a cancer treatment, I was obviously clueless about the side-effects, too. The list of potential side-effects, as I discovered, is as long as that for chemo. And similarly, there are both early and late side-effects.
Common Early Side-Effects
- urinary frequency (needing to go more often)
- loss of pubic hair (gone already, not bothered if it grows back or not)
Less Common Early Side-Effects
- skin irritation and soreness in the treatment area
- vaginal discharge or bleeding
- abdominal cramps
- low blood counts
- nausea and sickness.
Common Late Side-Effects
- changes to bowel movements (this topic seems to crop up a lot!)
- increased urinary frequency and urgency
- vaginal shortening and narrowing
Rare Late Side-Effects
- blood in urine
- rectal bleeding
- bowel narrowing
- lymphoedema (fluid retention and swelling)
- hairline fractures to the pelvis
- risk of second cancer (my oncologist said this is 1 in 100)
- fistula (formation of abnormal passages between body cavities – even with the explanation I’m not sure what this is)
I had 25 external radiotherapy sessions, everyday Monday to Friday. It’s nice they give you the weekends off.
The sessions were quick. Most days I was in and out of the hospital in twenty minutes.
Before the sessions started, I had a planning scan. In the scan, the radiology nurses work out your position on the bed so the x-rays hit the cancerous cells and avoid damaging the healthy cells. I have four tiny tattooed dots they used to align me with the rays.
For the radiotherapy sessions, I didn’t have to strip off, just pull my pants down a little and the shirt up to expose the required area. There were also no injections or cannulas.
Quick and easy compared to the chemo sessions.
First, I was going to dedicate a whole post just about brachytherapy, but then reconsidered. I didn’t think I could talk about my vagina for that long.
Brachytherapy is internal radiotherapy, and I only had two of these after I had finished with the external sessions.
The position I have to be in for the brachytherapy was a little uncomfortable and perhaps a bit undignified. I had to lie on my back and my legs were up with my feet in stirrups so I would stay in place.
There were two nurses and my oncologist in the room with me, all staring at my vagina. So no, not the most dignified experience of my life, but by this point I had been prodded and poked so many times and in so many places, that it made no difference to have some more poking and prodding and a few more people starting at my private parts.
In brachytherapy for womb cancer, the x-rays are delivered via small tube inserted up the vagina. The tube was small, and the position was a little uncomfortable, but it was all painless. And quick, like the external radiotherapy sessions.
For those looking for more information on brachytherapy for uterine cancer, you can find out more here.
My Side-Effects From Radiotherapy
I have to say that radiotherapy hit me a lot harder than chemo. As I’ve said, the experiences differ from person to person.
One of the radiology nurses said to me when I went in for my planning scan that a lot of patients had said that radiotherapy was like a walk in the park compared to chemo. Yes, the sessions were a lot easier, but I felt the effects a lot more than from chemo.
Of course it might have been that by this point my body had been through a hell of a lot already with surgery and chemo and the effects just compounded.
This was by far the worst side-effect I had, and I have never felt fatigue like that. It went beyond feeling tired. Far beyond it.
I felt exhausted, however much I tried to sleep. Both physically and mentally exhausted. The first couple of weeks weren’t so bad, but then it started and I had to catch a couple of naps each day to get through until I could go to bed in the evening.
I wasn’t sure how long it would take to build my energy levels back up. But it was actually quicker than I expected. I think eating healthier following the surgery (eventually at least) helped a lot, as did exercise.
I Consider Myself So Lucky
Why? Because I did not experience most of the side-effects listed above. Diarrhoea was a nuisance a few times, including one night time accident, but nothing that would have been a constant issue.
I also got away with no skin irritation or soreness.
I have experienced vaginal narrowing, which is why my oncologist gave me a plastic ‘tube’ to keep it open – see video.
So far I have experienced no other late side-effects and I pray it will remain so.
Thank you for being here and reading the post.
Until next time!
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