In the last few weeks, I have learnt many a lesson (okay, four lessons). All the lessons revolve around the medical wonder that is radiotherapy; my view of which has changed quite dramatically from when I previously had the NHS brand my who-ha in October 2012. In short:
• Radiotherapy is not easy
• Radiotherapy whilst you are undergoing chemotherapy treatment is definitely not easy
• Never ever ever wish for a gippy tummy
• If you are a female, always prepare for a radiotherapy session as if you are about to wear a string bikini in public
Since my trip to Casualty in June, I have wanted one thing and one thing only, and that one thing is radiotherapy. My pain at that time was such that I believed that fixing that pain was the only way I would be able to make it through my current treatment. On my worse days, my survival hinged on fixing my pain. Do not get me wrong, I loathe chemotherapy just as much as I know it is a necessary evil, but try being on a course of treatment when you cannot bend down and pick up your bath mat, sit on the toilet or pull yourself out of bed. Maybe reducing my paraprotein should be my priority, but it is not. My priority has and continues to be fixing my back, so I can then focus on that pesky paraprotein. Battling the two at the same time takes energy, more energy then I reasonably have. I’ll use my energy on both if I have to, but my effort in doing so is a disservice to both. My pain has taken away too much of my freedom and I just want to reclaim some of it.
The journey from discovering the first twinge of back pain on 27 May, to completing my course of radiotherapy treatment on 29 August has been mercifully quick. Three months may sound like a long time, but all things considered, it has not been that long at all and that is just another prime example of the brilliance of the NHS.
It may have taken a month or so to convince the Medically Trained People, with Operation Radiotherapy, that I could not wait to see if my treatment alone would heal my back, but once that was agreed by the end of July, everything else happened very quickly. Operation Radiotherapy was far from subtle and essentially involved me only talking about my pain during my appointments, much to the dismay of Big Sister who wished for me to discuss my treatment plan. I may not have been subtle, but neither was my pain, which had decided to occupy almost every waking thought, especially the thoughts that came when I attempted to move in my sleep.
On the 6 August I was informed that I would be having radiotherapy and it was most probably going to be in the form of five sessions over five days, targeting the tumour around my L5. I was ecstatic at this news. I know I was ecstatic because I wrote a blog about it. It was during this appointment that I was told that I may experience a gippy tummy as a result of the radiotherapy. Thirteen days later my treatment began.
I did indeed have five sessions, on five different days, but due to the Bank Holiday and my need to see Kate Bush in concert, it actually happened on a Thursday, Friday, Tuesday, Thursday and a Friday. A week prior to the first session, I had my planning appointment, which featured two new tattoos and a CT scan. By the Tuesday session, I was incredibly relieved that I had some respite between zaps and I was not due in everyday. I do not think my body would have been able to handle it. It was a four-five hours a day for two minutes of radiation, and I am a weakling.
The Radiotherapy Department at UCLH is a strange place. It is in the basement of the tower and thus as I waited, I had no phone signal to keep me company. The waiting areas are very much designed for patients receiving the treatment for usual cancerous reasons. They were not designed for people getting radiotherapy to ease their pain. It may sound like a small thing, but waiting for upwards of an hour on a hard departure lounge style chair is not something my spine particularly enjoys. Add that with having to lie down on a slab for ten minutes, bookended by hour plus journeys in a suspension free ambulance chair and what I got was immense jarring pain.
In the secondary waiting area, the opaque windows are adorned with pictures of butterflies and stars accompanied by quotes about the brilliance of nature. This of course, made me guffaw at the thought that somebody, somewhere, believed that this would relax somebody with cancer. It was in stark contract to the stark room with the big whirling machine hidden behind a maze of iron lined corridors. In these rooms, there are six identical rooms, there was a screen for me to protect my modesty as I removed the bottom half of my clothing. I am not entirely sure why I needed to protect my modesty with a screen, when my knickers would be pulled below by bum during each session, when I was lying on the metal slab, with a piece of blue paper over my nunny.
I found the whole thing incredibly exhausting.
After the first, second and fourth session, I vomited. Vomiting is not a side effect I am particularly used to. I thought I was used to everything. I may have had a stem cell transplant, but vomiting, thankfully, bar a few other occasions on my HRT, had been my only experience of being physically sick. Nausea sure, I live with that daily, but vomiting to me symbolises being unwell and until I experienced cancer, is one that I heavily associated with people having cancer. On the fourth day, I lost a very nice sandwich from Benugo’s. I did not like it. It made me feel like I had cancer.
On days 1-5 and for several days post, I experienced extreme fatigue. After the first session, I got into bed at 19:00hrs and emerged the following morning. Three days after my last session, I was so tired, I forgot that I was crashing on my steroids. Fatigue was not a side effect I was told to particularly expect, but I think that radiotherapy and chemotherapy is something of a toxic mix, and my body was just displaying that for all and sundry.
On the fourth day, I also had my regular clinic appointment, during which I lambasted the false claim that I would experience a gippy tummy. I did this because I am a fool and did not associate vomiting with what one could consider a ‘gippy tummy’. I was just fed up with being constipated that I thought I would welcome a good, thorough cleaning. The treatment finished on a Friday and by Sunday, I was cursing myself and the pain in my stomach. By the Monday evening, after I had spent four hours on the toilet clearing my bowels, I was cursing the radiotherapy. I am a self styled ‘Strong Ox’, but slipping off a loo sit because my naked body was drenched in diarrhoea induced sweat, was enough to make me doubt my stoicism. The next day, Haemo Dad put me in his car on the advice of the Medically Trained People and took me to A&E.
I like to think that my four hour adventure to Peterborough City Hospital was not an overreaction and was a well considered precaution. It was a precaution for many reasons, not least because four days before my neutrophil count was 0.85 and there was a fear that I had an infection. To me it was a necessity because I needed reassurance that everything would be okay. I know many side effects and I know how I should feel on almost every occasion. I had no idea what was happening to me and that scared me.
Haemo Dad had to go off and do some Haemo stuff in PCH, so he was replaced by Mama Jones who waited patiently with me until I got the okay to go home after I was given some fluids and IV paracetamol. As an aside, I can confirm that IV paracetamol can give one a nice, deep sleep.
In my private room, having waited for five minutes to check in with my fellow citizens in the reception, I was rather impressed with the treatment I received. It was thorough, and it was delivered by a Person Medically Trained Funded By The RAF, which led me to seek confirmation that I was not hallucinating. Obviously, for anybody who has ever inserted a cannula into my veins or has been present when somebody else has inserted a cannula into my veins, I was rather less impressed by the size of the cannula (I think I am spoilt at UCLH), or the blood that bled when the tube was removed. It is 15 days later, I still have a bruise.
Evidence that I made a third visit in two years to Peterborough’s A&E.
After six more days of sleep, liberal doses of Buscopan, and a £34 round trip to have my bloods done, I felt back to normal. As I said to my CNS, normal to me means heavily constipated. As well as feeling constipated, I also felt embarrassed that I went into my radiotherapy thinking that it was nothing. Not only nothing, but I went in thinking that it would be easy and welcomed the predicted side effects. I was wrong. I would not want to go through it again any time soon.
Time will tell whether the treatment worked. This week, my back hurts more than it has for a month and I hope this is a sign of the radiotherapy is working. I just don’t know. If this whole affair has taught me anything at all, it is that when it comes to My Myeloma, nothing is ever certain.