I started treatments this week, and figured I would describe the experience briefly for folks who haven’t been through this before. They’re generally more mundane than people expect.
I have Tomotherapy radiation every weekday for six and a half weeks. This starts with me changing into a robe on top, then laying in a special mold made of my back that holds me in the same place on the table. The techs then spend a few minutes lining up guide lasers with small tattooed dots–two on my chest and one on each side. Once I’m lined up, we’re ready to go.
I go into the machine twice. The first time is for a CT scan, which takes about 10 minutes. They take me out of the machine and we wait for Dr. Lee (the radiation oncologist) to personally verify the placement and make adjustments for anything that has changed with me (like losing weight) or with the cancer (like the mass getting smaller or larger).
Then it’s back into the machine again, this time for around 20 minutes. There is an arm rotating around me inside the CT tube. It has little “leaves” of lead that are constantly reforming to create different shaped openings, effectively shaping the radiation beams. Rotations let the machine send beams from any angle of 360 degrees, creating the ability to hit only cancer cells and hopefully miss other organs. At the end of the 20 minutes, I’m done for the day!
Side effects for radiation don’t usually kick in until the end of the second week (at the earliest) but my mass is so low in my chest that it’s giving me a little nausea. I have a truckload of anti-nausea meds for chemo though, so I should be covered!
Chemo is weekly, because it has synergy with the radiation in attacking the cancer more quickly and weakening its resistence. It starts with a check of my weight and blood pressure, then they run the IV. I don’t have a port because I’m young and my veins are still good, apparently. Once the nurse runs the IV, they take a sample and do a quick CBC to check my white blood cell counts. The chemo will definitely lower them, and they have to keep an eye on how low they go.
Once the blood test comes back fine, it’s pretty straight-forward. You sit in a recliner for 4-5 hours (in my case) while they switch out IVs and ask how you’re feeling. The first drug in my regimen, Taxol, can provoke quick allergic reactions, but I was fine with it and the second drug, the platinum-based Carboplatin. My best description of chemo is it’s like finding out your flight’s delayed but oh well, you have a laptop and you found a fairly comfy, private chair to wait it out… on an IV.
Side effects for chemo include infection from reduced white blood cell counts and nausea, primarily. I’ll also lose my hair, which is the subject of my next post. Those usually kick in after the second week (for low dose weekly treatments like mine).
Updates Down The Road
Right now, I’m feeling great although a bit of the chemoradiation fatigue is starting to set in. It’s a common (some would say unavoidable) side effect of the treatments. For the last three weeks of treatments, many patients spend most of their time in bed, sleeping. Apparently the combo of chemo and radiation drains a lot of energy from the body–they recommend eating extra calories and even still, most patients lose weight.
I’ll post updates on the treatments each week, so anyone just starting on this road has an idea of the timing, fatigue, etc. Of course, everyone’s reaction is different, so what happens to me may be very different from what happens to you!