Radiotherapy uses x-ray type beams to control or kill cancer cells. Like chemotherapy, it isn’t gentle in the way it goes about it, and it has side effects. The side effects will differ for each person receiving the treatment, and it also depends on whereabouts in the body the radiation is targeted.
To prepare for radiotherapy, my son’s team needed to make a face mask for him. To show him how it was done, they first made a model for his hand. The reason for the mask was to keep his head and neck area in exactly the right position each time he had treatment. These special masks clamp to the table. It sounds awful and looked frightening too. He also had to breathe through a special straw in his mouth and he absolutely hated that part. When he had finished all his radiotherapy sessions, (it was five or six weeks total – I don’t remember) the team allowed him to throw his straw victoriously across the room! Each treatment session only lasted a few minutes, and it was the preparation each time that took the longest. He did not have a general anaesthetic (some patients do) and so he would be settled on to the table, have his mask and straw fixed in place, we would give him a kiss, wish him luck and quickly go into a side room where we could see him on a monitor. Then as soon as we had the signal, we rushed back in to the treatment room again. He showed tremendous courage the whole time.
We had to travel to the hospital every weekday. The travelling was tiring for us all, but especially for my son, and got worse as the weeks went by. Fatigue is a side effect anyway.
After a couple of weeks, one of the worst side effects took hold – mucositis – and it was decided by the team that he should be admitted to hospital for the rest of his treatment. His mouth became so sore with ulcers that he stopped speaking, eating and drinking. To keep him nourished, and give him oral medication, he had a naso-gastric tube for the first time. It was a distressing time for everyone. The mucositis spread right through his body and he then became ill with an e-coli infection.
My son missed just one session of radiotherapy, because he felt so ill and he refused to go. That is the only time he ever refused treatment. The following day the radiotherapy consultant came up to the ward especially to see him, spoke to him about life in general and how important it was that he had his radiotherapy. He coaxed him down to the treatment room and helped us get him settled.
Another side effect was dry skin and scabs from the radiotherapy burns. In those days, we were told to put aqueous cream on his skin. I don’t think that is common practice now. He complained that the cream made his skin sting and was very uncomfortable, not soothing at all.
I was very glad when his radiotherapy treatment was over.
A long term side effect was that the stiffness in his jaw increased, making trips to the dentist a bit of a challenge. The chemotherapy and the radiotherapy did a lot of damage to his teeth, but the dentists always tried to put the blame on him not being thorough enough with his cleaning.
If you familiar with my son’s story then you will know that after eight years in remission, he developed another cancer, Osteosarcoma, as a direct result of the radiotherapy damaging his growing jaw bone.
TO BE CONTINUED…
My next post will be about his second cancer. If you have stayed with my posts this far, thank you. If you need to recap then please do look at the Rhabdomyosarcoma page which has all the links.