As I continue down the path of celebrating 30 years being cancer free from my Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, February marks 30 years that I underwent my option of choosing radiation therapy to be my cure.
I have to admit, I made the decision based solely on stereotypes and what I thought would be common sense. At this point, my cancer was staged to allow me to make the choice between radiation or chemotherapy. Well, chemotherapy I knew would be tough, because that is all you ever saw publicly. I had a wedding coming up in less than 4 months, and the last thing I wanted to look like, was someone so decimated and sick on my wedding day. Yes, men can feel this way about their appearance too. And radiation? Well, really, as I understood it, was only going to last around a minute a day, for 30 days. In my mind, just like going through an X-ray. Easily done, and would not be visible when I got married.
I may have been told a lot of information about what would happen, but to be quite honest, I know I did not hear what I now know about radiation. Sure, it is very successful at treating Hodgkin’s. But I was never told about the dosage or the late side effects. The only thing I was told initially, is that there would be eventual skin burning (like a second degree sunburn), and a chance at developing a secondary cancer (like skin cancer), and an increase chance of pericarditis (enlarged heart).
So, all that was to be done, was “mark me up” with tattoos, actually just 4 dots placed in a cross-hair pattern, at the base of my neck, middle of my abdomen, and on both balls of my shoulders. This was important to line up the linear accelerator over the same location for all 30 treatments.
Unlike today, where radiation is beamed direct and targeted, back in the 1980’s were we treated “scattered field”, which meant that the radiation would scatter beyond the targeted area. For this reason, all efforts were made to protect my spine and my heart with the use of lead blocks. But remember, this was going to be scattered field, and only currently do I realize, the lead blocks really only gave direct impact protection, but not protection from the scattered results.
As I lay on the table for my first treatment, there is an issue with the linear accelerator. I am asked to get off the table, while the correct the problem. I think, “thank God.” But seriously, what if something went wrong, would life imitate art?
The treatment eventually began. I went Monday through Friday, for six weeks. Receiving all of my treatments. I started each day this way, early, which enabled me to not miss any work. While my skin did begin to burn as predicted, and there was some issue with swallowing from the same issue, I did not get sick. The treatments would be done, a scan would hopefully predict the radiation did its job, and I could get back on track planning my wedding. Be done with Hodgkin’s forever.
Radiation changed a lot from the days of using cobalt.
And just as there has been progress from the early days to the 80’s, so much progress has been made in learning that “using less” is actually better, and still as successful. I will admit that I am not current on just how much radiation is used today, but I know it is considerably less, and instead of “scattered”, focused directly at only the cancer, preventing damage to surrounding organs and tissue, meaning less risks.
Let me put it to you this way, according to Stanford University, my treatment (not known back then) produced the possibility of dying by an increase of 50% because I discovered in recent years, my dosage was 4000 rads. Today’s patients receive a dosage most likely less than 500 rads, or even lower. How powerful is radiation? Even workers at nuclear power plants are not to be exposed to more than 100 rads.
Serious stuff. But you know what? It works. And I am here, approaching 30 years of survivorship.