Thursday, May 15, 2008

Just Radiant—Undergoing Radiation Treatment

March was the first full week of 6 + main and 2 weeks booster radiation treatments for my head and neck cancer. This is an external radiation treatment, some are internal using 'seed's implanted next to various organs or tumor areas in the body. Radiation facts are important to factor into your treatment.

What can someone expect from radiation treatment? Well, for one, it helps not to be claustrophobic, anxious or timid about getting in there and getting it done. CancerCompass has the 3 types of basic treatments outlined.

The claustrophobic part comes from getting measured for a special mask that is used to precisely tailor the radiation to the treatment area of your head or neck. If you are claustrophobic let your doctor/specialist and the radiology technicians know before this portion of your treatment begins. It's better to deal with it and get started as quickly as possible. A little discomfort shouldn't prolong the radiation treatment for your head and neck cancer. The combination of chemotherapy and radiation in combination is sometimes prescribed to shrink and eliminate any cancer tumors.

The mask starts out as a flat special plastic sheet that when heated under hot water, conforms to your face. This is kind of like having a hot towel placed over your face, then pressed on until you almost feel the first layer of skin burning. The nurse technicians are very careful not to let you get too uncomfortable. You get a soft plastic mouth protection device which like the kind athletes use to protect their teeth. This is used because the mask and clamping puts a lot of pressure on the jaws. The mask is extremely tight. It also keeps your jaws and mouth in the right position for treatment. The mask has 4 or more clamps that align to the treatment table so you can be placed in the exact position each time. Your head is clamped to the table and you are not able to move. The radiotherapy machine is moved into position around you for treatment. This helps to concentrate the radiation on your specific head and neck area. Additional measurements and film are taken at regular intervals (usually every third treatment) to ensure you are getting the precise beam alignment on your body.

The main series of radiation treatments will focus on one or more fields that segment the cancerous areas in a methodical approach to reducing them. After the main series comes a 'booster' series (if requested by the attending Oncologist) that are reduced fields and reduced radiation. This ostensibly prevents any future cancer from recurring in those treated areas. This ostensibly prevents any future cancer from recurring in those treated areas. Getting nutrition by mouth may become a problem. I opted to get a PEG tube in my stomach to get nutrition throughout my treatment.

There are some harsh side effects form the radiation. Of course, every person's treatment will vary as well as the side effects. In the case of my base of tongue and lymph node cancer, the biggest detriment to joy was the continual mucositis which is really rough. The radiation dries up salivary glands which leads to dry mouth, a 'stone' lodged in the throat (tightness and sandpaper-like feelings along with a Sahara dryness that makes you choke). Also, if you've ever had strep throat, multiply that by 5 times and you get the general idea of how sore your throat can become. The irritation and inflammation alone are crazy, combined with the torrent of phlegm caused by the radiation is enough to make a person want to quit on the stool. The important thing is to keep going. Quitting will only ensure your cancer will still be there. Keep pushing through the treatment and things will eventually get better. The redness on the exterior of my neck and jaws were kind of like a 1st degree burn. The radiation filed on one side of the neck often seeks an exit point. So little splotches of bright red appeared on my neck. You also lose the hair on the treatment area. Sometimes it grows back, sometimes not. Another side effect in my case was that my taste buds went buh-bye. Yep, everything tasted like wet, slimy cardboard. They say it comes back, but at a rate of one month for every week of radiation.

This is some harsh stuff, but your life is in the balance. Go through it and your loved ones and family will be forever thankful. You have to prepare for battle in dealing with your cancer treatment. You have to find the will to fight. You can do it!

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