October 23, 2012 at 1:22 pm
Chemotherapy, radiation, surgery…the process and side effects of cancer treatments can often leave those affected with questions. And while medical professionals can be a great source of information and reassurance, it can also be helpful to hear the stories of those who have got through a similar experience.
Here our member and Bangers & Mash author, Keith Hern, describes his treatment while fighting throat cancer – discussing everything from the unexpected, to overcoming side effects, in the third of a six-part guest post series on the Healthy People blog:
Unexpected start: Before I was able to undergo any treatment, I was dispatched to the hospital dentist to see if I had any teeth likely to need future significant dental treatment. I had three so they had to be pulled out, because after radiotherapy the mouth wouldn’t heal quickly enough to prevent likely infection – so extraction was the answer.
Chemotherapy: I was advised I would have two five-day, 24×7 bouts of chemotherapy, with two weeks off in between. There are pre-tests to check the kidneys are strong enough to withstand the treatment, and as mine were borderline I needed to go in early for extra rehydration. The chemotherapy was one hour of cisplatin (I was advised this was heavy duty chemo), followed by five days of a compound, 5FU. Throughout the treatment the pill intake ( of which there were two anti-sickness pills, and a steroid) rises to ensure you don’t get too ill from the chemotherapy. Do ask if you don’t feel well, as they will prescribe more. The list given on arrival of side-effects made for pretty horrific reading, but everyone is different. Many people lose their hair with chemotherapy, but I never did. The main effects I felt was a bad dose of constipation, and everything tasted slightly metallic. However, take it very easy when you get home, as it does wipe you out for the first couple of days. As the nurses told me ‘listen to your body’, which was excellent advice.
Radiotherapy: When on the head and neck this starts with having to have a facemask made, which ensure your head is in exactly the same position every day for the lasering. For me radiotherapy was about fifteen minutes a day for six weeks, and to begin with, was a breeze. Speaking to other patients it is vital to get a really good skin protection; otherwise you can get pretty serious burning. The hospital recommended Aqueous cream, but after speaking to two patients I went for Radiance gel, an aloe vera gel from the Penny Brohn Cancer Centre, and never had even the slightest burning.
Tough time: The side-effects hit me hard at the end of the first week, all due to the radiotherapy drying out my mouth. Firstly, I stopped being able to break down food, so no more eating. Then I lost my taste, and finally because I was now sipping water 24×7 sleeping through the night was a problem. I lost weight quickly and got pretty weak, the main battle being to avoid being put on a feeding tube, which I was perilously close to. Once again the nurses provided some excellent tips about getting more calories inside, such as buttering a piece of bread to put in my soup, that way I’ll get the calories and still won’t need to chew. I did lose the hair off the lower back of my head with the radiotherapy.
Mentally I found it tough to handle that my condition would continue to deteriorate even after the radiotherapy was over, as it’s cumulative in effect. This lasted about two weeks for me, before turning the corner. By this stage I was being seen by the dietician, and had been put on high-calorie liquid supplements, Enlive (fruit drink), Ensure (similar to liquidised Angel Delight), Scandishake (like a milk shake), and Calogen (calories on a spoon). Scandishake I found the best, Calogen on the other hand just, made me ill!
Operations: My treatment started and finished with an operation: first to remove the primary tumour on the back of my tongue, and lastly, to remove the secondary in my neck along with all the lymph nodes. With AXA PPP healthcare cover this was carried out in a private hospital, very much appreciated for the extra comfort and quiet.
What about the little big things?
From taking advice on ‘listening’ to his body to using an aloe vera gel to prevent burning, Keith identifies a number of little things that made a big difference to him during treatment for cancer. Do you have a similar experience to share? Please feel free to submit it to our new little big things pinboard, or read tips from others.