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Monday 21 January 2019

Radiating optimism

Having finished chemotherapy with all its side-effects, Marie Carberry finds that radiotherapy is relatively straightforward

A COUPLE of weeks ago I put up a Facebook status update that said, "Marie Carberry's hair is growing back dark with just a hint of grey -- JUST A HINT I SAID!" It was a complete lie, of course.

My hair is growing alright (thank God, as it's not so long ago since my 12-year-old told me I reminded him of Matt Lucas in Little Britain) but the colour is more badger than red squirrel. I asked a friend, who is a hairdresser, if she could dye it for me but she said it was early days yet. "You would just end up with a big ring of colour around your scalp and you would look ridiculous," she said. "Wait for another couple of weeks." She wouldn't even consider highlights. I sulked for the whole day.

With the chemotherapy finished it was time for radiotherapy. "The cream on the cake," was how it was described to me. Anyway, two weeks after the chemo finished, I was brought into the hospital for a mapping session.

Process

Radiotherapy is a carefully planned process so as to give maximum attention to the area where the tumour was and as little as possible to the surrounding normal cells. Step one of this process involves a Computed Tomography scan (CT) which scans the treatment area. I had to lie on the plinth, put my hands behind my head and wrap them around a small pole. The radiotherapist permanently tattooed my skin under each arm and in the centre of my chest so they can reproduce the treatment position every day during the actual radiotherapy.

"Can I have a dolphin, a sunset and a heart with Mammy in it?" I asked the radiotherapist/tattooist.

You could tell by her weary smile that she had heard this joke hundreds of times before, so I quit while I was ahead.

The mapping process takes about 45 minutes, during which time you must stay perfectly still.

My right side managed to do this but the left, where the lymph nodes were removed, is still a little stiff and started to tremble after about 10 minutes. The tremor started at my neck and soon travelled down to my hip. I couldn't control it and it felt like I had Tourette syndrome in that I was jerking and moving all over the plinth. When the radiotherapist returned she assured me the movements were minimal but I was exhausted from trying to hold myself still.

She explained the side-effects that may occur. "Tiredness is one and skin reaction similar to sunburn is another," she said. Used to a list of side-effects the length of your arm for chemotherapy, I waited for the rest but was pleasantly surprised to find that that is really all there is to radiotherapy.

Checking

On my first day of the real thing I was introduced to David, Natalie, Gavin and Ciara, my "carers" for the next five weeks. Thinking it would only take about 15 minutes, I leapt up on the plinth, put my hands in the required position and waited to be zapped. Some extra checking had to be done, which meant, again, I was to remain perfectly still for a long stretch.

After a while it became unbearable and the tears started to form. When Gavin came back I asked to let my arms down just for a bit. He was kindness personified but I didn't know that they would have to start the whole process all over again.

I am now halfway through the radiotherapy treatment and have had no problems since. Going every day can be a bit of a pain. It only takes about 15 minutes, but your whole day revolves around it. But it is a small price to pay and I'm very grateful for the diligence and efficiency of my carers. Nothing is left to chance and images and measurements are always double-checked and confirmed. My radiation oncologist then checks these images and measurements against the original CT scan to confirm accuracy.

In two weeks I'll be finished the radiation treatment and that will be it. No further treatment or medication can be given because of the type of tumour that I had. In October, I visit my oncologist and breast surgeon for the final round-up.

From then on it's a case of wait and see which, I imagine, is a bit like standing on the edge of a cliff and looking down.

But I have every intention of looking up.

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