A couple of months ago I read John Diamond’s memoir about his cancer experience. John Diamond was a journalist for The Times and was diagnosed with throat cancer. As part of his treatment required his voice box to removed, John made the decision to document his cancer story through a series of weekly columns in The Times. His description of how it felt to go through radiotherapy a second time really mirrored my experience. For him, the second dose of radiotherapy was palliative. John knew that he was going to die so the radiotherapy was being conducted “to improve his quality of life”. A saying that medical practitioners are exceedingly fond of.
For me, the jury was out as it would be curative or palliative as no one really knew. Anyway the way John described the attitude of the staff around him as he underwent his second course was spot on. He describes when he went for the mask fitting, no jokes were cracked and there was a strange morbid atmosphere in the air. This was the same for me. At the first mask fitting, the technicians were behaving a bit like a comical double act, but now all that joviality had disappeared. The plaster of Paris was applied in silence. I lay on the table again for the fitting and numbers were solemnly exchanged. The CT scan was quietly performed and measurements made. When I came out of the fitting, I felt quite resigned to the fact that this was the end. Nothing could be done.
I went to the appointment with Dr B just before starting the radiotherapy, feeling pretty low. I think Dr B must have picked up on this.
“So how do you think the treatment will affect me?” I asked Dr B, fearful of the answer.
“It won’t be quite as evasive as the first as it’s going to be much more targeted. I can show you the plan of action if that would help you?” she said.
“I guess it wouldn’t hurt…”
She took me out of her office into another room that had about ten computers in it. She switched one on and after a few clicks an image appeared on the screen. It was an odd image. It looked like my head and through my head were a series of lines. There were red lines, green lines and blue lines. The red lines were passing straight through my head, coming out of my left eye. They then turned green and finally blue the further away from the centre my head they became.
“That’s the path of radiation. The red lines indicate high levels of radiation, the green are medium levels and the blue are low levels. What you must understand Anna is that although it won’t be as evasive as the first cycle, you will still get side effects. Sometimes these occur years after you finish the treatment.”
I nodded and I sort of understood the image that was in front of me. But it was what she said that stuck. The side effects would occur years after I finish treatment. So it looks like I could live for years right?
At the end of our appointment, Dr B gave me a prescription for some steroids. She wasn’t happy doing it but she thought it was a good idea, to beat any fatigue I might feel. As anyone who has been on steroids will you, once you start taking them, life becomes a manic blur. You develop a weird chipmunk look, with puffed up cheeks. You even start acting like a chipmunk, scurrying away, doing household chores at 4 in the morning, repairing fence panels, going on 10 mile hikes and not breaking a sweat at all.
This steroid induced fuzz meant that I breezed through the radiotherapy. Compared to my last course where everything seemed to slow down to an almost halt, this time I powered through. I would turn up bright and breezy, slip on my gown, laugh and joke with the nurses while they got my mask ready and zap! It was all over and it was back home to the gardening. I felt good and had the feeling that this time, it could be working.
The six weeks flew by and my last session arrived. My parents had come up for it and we rather overloaded the nurses with chocs to say thank you. Not that they were complaining. We had to wait 5 weeks before an MRI to see if it had worked. It was a bit nerve wracking but I was silently optimistic.
My appointment after the MRI came around. Dr B actually came to the waiting room herself to call me in.
“Good news, good news, good news.” She muttered under her breath to me as we walked from the waiting room to her office.
And good news it was. Soon me, my husband, my parents and my soon to be pregnant for the second time sister all took our seats and started squinting at a computer screen. On the screen was the inside of my head. Most importantly, inside my head there were no white splodges. No white splodges meant no tumours. No tumours meant no cancer. I was disease free – again!
This time though, it felt good. I felt good as the radiotherapy wasn’t quite as traumatic as the first round. We could actually celebrate! I could make future plans! I could reopen my pension! Life could go back to normal! No more hospital appointments!
“Urmmm… I’d better pull you up on that one…” said Dr C. I would need monitoring. There would be scans but these would become less frequent the longer I survived.
“In the meantime, go and celebrate and I’ll see you in three months.” And celebrate we did.