Breast cancer lesson 144: How to have a blast in the radiotherapy room

Thank you Emily Barr. Oh, how I needed you and your gripping novel in the radiotherapy waiting room. Once more the odd one out (half the age of anyone else waiting and one of the only ones not being asked to drink water), a good book was the only thing stopping me from staring aimlessly at the ceiling and wishing I had a few more wrinkles and a bit more hair (except for a few men, I was the only baldie as well as the baby of the group).

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Of course, the need for reading matter wasn’t the only discovery I made at this, my first radio blasting. I think the most essential item I won’t be forgetting tomorrow is my dressing gown belt. Having applauded myself for remembering to pack my dressing gown, I was amused to learn that, without its belt, it is about as useful at preserving your dignity as a hospital gown. Wearing it backwards, so it can be whipped off at the last minute meant that I gave all that could see me a good look at my naked back. It was a small crowd, but having not had to strip for a good few weeks, I was a little out of practice.

Before the main event, I was treated to a quick overview, reminding me of the need to cream up and not shave (not that there is anything to shave). I was asked to sign a form declaring I wasn’t pregnant, recall the date of my last period (to which I answered ‘March-ish’) and confirm I understood the daily drill. I was slightly surprised to be handed a new sheet highlighting that a good number of my appointment times have already been altered (and that I will be meeting Elekta 1 and 4 now). It looks like my life (and my diary) is now firmly in the hands of the NHS for the next three weeks and it seems I will now be enjoying many an evening in its company!

As appointments go, it was pretty futuristic, if you ignore the office-like ceiling tiles and the old-fashioned swimming pool-like changing cubicles. Here’s a quick rundown:

  • On entering the room, I was asked to lie down on the bed, position my feet up against a foot rest and raise my arms above my head (in exactly the same way as I did for the planning appointment). I was then wiggled around a bit (it’s very important you don’t help with the wiggling even though you want to be useful).
  • Once in position, the three people in the room started speaking in code (basically a series of measurements) and drawing on me in felt tip pen to ensure they lined me up correctly. Green lasers and what looked like a ruler were projected onto my skin and I was even treated to a few bits of tape, which were fixed to the breast and above and attached to wires. I believe this is to help them work out that the right dose is getting to the right part of the treatment area.
  • When the team were happy with my positioning, they left the room while the chest area was x-rayed. This is to make sure the position matches that of the radiotherapy planning appointment. I, meanwhile, just had to lie still and go to my happy place (which included trying to get intimately acquainted with those ceiling tiles).
  • After that, the machine clicked a few times to help the team focus in on the area to be blasted. The clicking was followed by a series of fairly loud noises (a bit like tinny buzzing). Then it was all over and I was free to leave with my felt tip pen marks and belt-less dressing gown.

The entire appointment (excluding waiting time) lasted about 25 minutes.

Was it painless? Not completely. While the treatment itself caused no pain, the ongoing tingling problems I have in my hands meant that when I raised them above my head, my right side decided to go dead (in that way limbs often do in bed). Normally, I would just move and shrug it off. Fifteen minutes in the same position without moving a muscle, however, and I wasn’t sure my arm would ever come back to life. Thankfully, it is typing now, so order has been restored.

By the way, I now know what this interesting piece of cloth is. It is less a medical gismo and more a piece of material designed to stop me sticking to the bed. It also helps them move me around without (in the words of my radiotherapist) ‘any heavy handling’. I thought it had magical properties. But, no, turns out it is just a cloth!

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How does it feel now? My boob is twitching slightly but otherwise fine. I feel a bit sleepy, but that is probably more to do with the build up than anything else. Mostly, I just feel a bit weird (nice and medical for you). I must confess, being back in hospital, reminded of the invisible illness that tried to steal away my life, while being blasted with invisible doses of radiation is actually not that fun. And, the worst part is, I have to do it all over again tomorrow – at 4.45pm. Rush hour and radiation! Whoop! And this is supposed to be the easy part!

If anyone knows whether or not it is ok to wash off these rather exciting black felt-tip pen marks, please let me know.

Now all I need to do is find that dressing gown belt!