“you lay down, it takes about a minute and you won’t feel a thing”
Just hold on, because that’s only really half true.
I’m not sure how many radiotherapy machines they have at The Royal Marsden. It’s a lot though! Between the two sites, they will almost certainly operate the largest radiotherapy facility in the UK.
It’s a really well oiled machine too. An absolutely incredible, gold standard example of everything good about the NHS.
The big and light reception area in Sutton is filled with art and staffed by people with beaming smiles. Everyone makes a big effort to get to know you.
Despite seeing these wonderful people 5 days a week for 6 weeks, radiotherapy was the least favourite part of my treatment. It’s not the treatment itself, that’s really easy. The radiotherapists were incredible too, and made you feel like you were the only patient in the world. It’s the aftermath of radiotherapy. But more on that later!
Alongside the chemo, the radiotherapy machines blast all the skin that cancer has been near. The objective is to kill off any remaining cancer cells, and it’s clear that radiotherapy is a really effective treatment for all kinds of cancers.
My whole case was transferred over to a consultant clinical oncologist at the Royal Marsden to plan the chemo-radiation treatment. I’m incredibly fortunate to have people at the very peak of cancer research looking after me. I have always felt at complete ease around all of my doctors, they’re a real credit to our health system.
Firstly, I was walked through the plan. Where they’re going to hit with the radio waves, and general info on what to expect. Next, I had an appointment to be tattooed. Now this isn’t nearly as exciting as it sounds. I just laid down under a scanner and had a bit of measuring done with a laser. Then, there’s some more measuring and I got a couple of marks on my hips and one below my stomach.
The tattoos are painless, and the marks are only used so the treatment machine has a reference point to work from.
Next, I was given an appointment card and turned up to the first session.
This one takes a bit longer than all the others as they double check all the planning. There’s always a couple of scans to check everything out and double check the calculation. The radiotherapy itself is all over in about 40-60 seconds, and some days you can be in and out in ten minutes.
A couple of really important things to remember about radiotherapy is to drink plenty of water, as it’s a giant tanning machine and will dry you out.
Also, find a really good cream. I used aveeno. With all that water, comes a lot of peeing and if you’re having any kind of groin area radiotherapy, go to the toilet before you lay down. They’ll only send you away for a pee if they discover you’ve got a full bladder after the scan.
Everything was going just fine until session 19. I was getting on ok with the disruption, the weird swellings, and the change in skin colour etc. But, by this point all of the hair in the general area of my groin had been burnt off and my entire fun zone was a gentle shade of mahogany.
But then, from nowhere, the peeling started. OH MY GOD. I got a burnt cock and a lovely 4 inch long scab down the middle of it, about two inches wide.
Then, like a toddler shitting on your floor at a birthday party, I got a surprise. I had not been briefed about this, as I would have remembered. All of the skin inside my right groin basically fell off. It was like porridge. This phenomenon is called moist skin desquamation! Google that if you dare.
This carried on for at least 10 days after radiotherapy finished. This is clearly going to be pretty traumatic for anyone to deal with, but it does seem to heal really quite quickly in the right conditions. (even if it doesn’t feel all that quick at the time!)
I was given polymem dressings, which are designed for burn victims. They are absolutely amazing at wicking away the moisture and creating an environment where the skin heals.
The real trouble for me was applying them, because all they are is a series of different size squares which I taped on. I taped together a patchwork quilt of these things and held them in place with tight underwear. Then, the tape pulled out any of the remaining hair I had left on my legs when i took it off.
It’s over before you know it.
I’m not sure there’s really much you can do to prevent some of the side effects. Radiotherapy is almost certainly going to have an effect on the lymphatic system. The skin discolouration does hang around for a while too.
Being hit with the big rays every day does knock it out of you a bit, and the more the treatment went on, the more I’d need a nap! Remembering to drink plenty of water and apply the cream was the big thing.
If you get the moist skin desquamation? Grit your teeth, it’ll be over in no time.