My radiation adventure
Johntheplantman gets treated for throat cancer
How I spent the last 4 months of 2010
So many people have asked for the details of my radiation treatment for throat cancer that I thought I would just go ahead and write an article about it. My blog title promises periodic stories, and I would assume that this will qualify in that category. I am hopin that this information may help someone who is facing cancer treatments.
A year or so ago, I had my first ever bout with laryngitis. During the course of this affliction, I gave a reading at our Rome Area Writer’s group. During the reading, I felt something pop in my throat. After the inflammation was gone, though, I had a raspy sound to my voice which wouldn’t go away. I had never had an affliction that wouldn’t go away, so I just waited, thinking it would cure itself. It didn’t.
I went to Dr. Robert King at the Harbin Clinic in Rome, Ga. and he stuck the receptor of a digital camera down my throat. He found a little growth on my right vocal cord that was keeping the cords from closing properly and thereby affecting my ability to talk clearly. I was amazed as he zoomed in the camera to show me. I think I was more amazed by the camera as anything else. Dr. King told me that he could go in there and cut it out with a laser. The process was set up for mid September, 2010.
The operation went well and a few days later I started to get my voice back. I was elated. I could talk again!!! Two weeks later, I went for the post op exam and was told that the removed tissue had tested positive for cancer. I was told that it had been found early and that it was a late stage 1 or an early stage 2. He said it was in a place that was easily treated and sent me on to the radiation clinic.
Being a dedicated optimist, I wasn’t really worried about it. I knew everything would be all right. The hard part was telling Sweetie, members of my family, and others who cared about me. Some of them seemed to take it harder than I did. Anyway, I went to see Dr. Matt Mumber at the radiation clinic and he stuck a camera down my throat and had me make noises with my new voice. He viewed the results from my CT scan and made recommendations. I was put on the fast track for treatment. I would have two treatments a day, five days a week, for a total of 64. I thought about it and figured, “hey, that’s doable. There’s a time line. I can live with a time line.” It would take a little over six weeks and end the day before Thanksgiving.
The preparation for the treatments was very interesting. They scanned my throat to get a picture of the exact area to be treated. Next, the technicians laid me on a table and lined me up under a laser in the ceiling. They marked the position where the laser hit my chest and asked if I would submit to a small tattoo instead of having to be careful about washing off the mark. I said, “sure, but I would like a dragon tattoo.” The nice lady said that she could do one but no one but me would be able to see the dragon and it would look just like a dot to anyone else. I liked that. It will be with me always and only special people will ever be able to see the dragon. Cool.
Then, they made me a “mask”. They laid me under the laser and positioned me just so. Then they took this funny thing with plastic netting, heated it up, and mashed it down over my face, making sure to form the nose and chin areas carefully. It looked like this:
I always try to make comparisons to enhance my understanding of a situation and I figured that this mask and the tattoo were very much like a jig that a carpenter would set up to position and make multiple identical cuts with a miter saw. The radiation techs had built a system that would hold me in the same place on the table every time. The next step was to send me home for a few days so that they could “set the program”, making sure the proper amount of radiation went to the proper place. I guess that this was the hardest time for me because I was dealing with something unknown. I had no idea what would happen next. All I heard from others was about how hard and difficult the process would be to handle. I called on my friend Mr. Optimism and shuffled it to the back of my head. “No sense in worrying about it”, I thought. That weekend, Sweetie and I went for a getaway in South Carolina. My voice was getting better.
The process began. The first day I was given a card with a bar code on it and instructed to scan it at the reception desk. I was to walk back into the building and through a dressing room. They said that if I wore my favorite knit shirts that have no collar (like a long underwear shirt) I wouldn’t have to put on a gown. That suited me. There was a waiting room outside an office with lots of computers and five or six people who seemed to stay busy. There was little or no waiting and I was taken into the radiation room. Where I was laid out on a table and ‘calibrated’. I asked one of the techs to take a picture. It looked like this:
I’m a bit claustrophobic and I worried about the mask, but it was made of an open plastic netting and I could see and breathe. I just couldn’t move my head, but that’s the idea. I looked up to see that someone had hung cardboard butterflies from the ceiling. I chuckled. The radio was playing old guy music which I enjoyed, so I concentrated on “I Love Rock’n Roll-Put another dime in the juke box, baby” while they worked on me. The technicians were cheerful, caring, and empathetic. They were wonderful and did everything possible to make the experience easy on my mind.
A technician (beautiful ladies and one big guy) took turns having one on each side of me while they calibrated the machine to my body. My head was bolted down with the mask and I was to hold two bungee cord sort of thingies that kept my shoulders down. The moved the table to line me up with the laser in the ceiling. The techs mumbled instructions to each other until they had all of the adjustments just right. Then they disappeared and some small sounds came from the machine—I mean really small sounds—and I didn’t feel anything. Shortly, the techs came back and moved the machine to the other side and disappeared once again. In a few short minutes that I spent listening to Glenn Campbell singing “Gentle on my Mind”, they returned and took me loose from the table. I think the entire process lasted less than ten minutes. I really didn’t feel much of anything.
And so I set in to my ‘radiation schedule’ which was comprised of getting my landscaping job for the day started, going in for a treatment at 10, back to the job until 3:30, ending the job and making it to the second treatment at 4:00. I was proud of myself for never being late for a treatment and for never missing a day’s work. For the first week or two, I was wondering where the horrible side effects were. I found out after a while, but with the proper attitude, the side effects weren’t so horrible.
I had a chance to talk with Kevin who was the guy tech. The ladies told me he was their “mouthpiece” and that he liked to tell people about the process so they let him. He explained that there was the ‘gross tumor’, the ‘clinical tumor area’ and the ‘treatment area.’ In my case, the gross tumor had been removed as had an area around the tumor which may contain some cancer cells. The ‘treatment area’ was the area around the tumor that was still there and in which there would still be a danger of cancer cells. This is what they were treating.
I made it easier for my own understanding by calling the tumor a “dragon” and the area around the tumor the “dragon’s nest” The dragon and the dragon’s nest had been surgically removed, and the radiation was used to “stomp out” any remaining “dragon eggs”. I laughed when I figured out I was explaining the treatment to myself in redneck terms.
I took a weekend to go to a book signing for Requiem for a Redneck in Columbus. My voice was raspy but still useable. I felt fine and had no real problems. My neck was turning red from the radiation.
After a week or so, I was dismayed to notice that my voice was getting weaker. I had heard talk about the ‘burning’ that comes with the radiation, but I hadn’t paid much attention to it. My throat was swelling from the treatments. It started getting sore. I started eating soup. Actually, I think I ate nothing but soup and ice cream for a total of 8 weeks. This was the major side effect. It happens because the radiation is actually burning the cells in the affected area. The idea is to kill all of the cells around the area and that good cells will grow back but cancer cells won’t.
As time went by, my throat was badly swollen on the inside and burnt on the outside. I used a special cream on the outside which worked very well and I was given a ‘magic mouthwash’ for the inside soreness. It is a combination of lidocaine, benadryl, and Maalox. It did the job. I got to where I could “spot gargle” with it.
Then I got to the point where my throat was so swollen that I couldn’t talk above a whisper. “What the hell”, I thought, “suck it up and deal with it.” So I did.
The treatments became almost a Zen experience. It was like taking two meditation breaks a day. I learned to just close my eyes and take my mind to some nice mountain top until the treatment was over. It became, oddly, an enjoyable part of my day. They would hook me up to the table and I would transport myself to the mountain. Then I would come back down and resume my day. I believe that a lot of things are possible if one maintains the proper attitude.
I met some wonderful people, also. While waiting my turn (it was seldom a long wait), I would talk with other people who were undergoing treatments. Most of them were very cheerful and upbeat. Some of them didn’t have long to live but they were amazingly upbeat. I gave one guy a copy of my book and he was delighted with it and brought me a custom made t shirt a couple of days later.
Here is a picture of three of the beautiful, caring technicians
I was happy when the treatments ended. I couldn’t talk or eat anything but soup and ice cream but I figured things would get better quickly. Quickly, however is relative. I had asked one of the doctors how long it would take for me to be able to talk in a normal manner again and he said “two months”. I scoffed. I knew I would do better than that.
As of today, January 2, 2011 it has been a bit longer than a month and my voice is better but nowhere near fully functional. My throat is still healing but not really sore any more. I still have coughing episodes which, I assume, is the act of my throat cleansing itself. The patch of burnt skin on my outer neck has healed well and I am delighted that I will never have to shave it again. I plan to get out my guitar and sing a song in a month or two.
I will be able to resume the marketing of my book.
I will no longer hear people ask, “What’s wrong with your voice?”
And God’s in His heaven and all’s right with the world.
By all rights, the cancer should be gone.
A song I heard once and will sing as soon as I am able goes,
“When trouble comes
I don’t pay no mind
I’ll be all right some day.”
If you would like a consultation with John Schulz, Landscape Artist in the North Ga. area, contact John Schulz BY EMAIL
As usual, I would just love for you click here to go to Amazon and purchase the ebook edition of my wonderful book, Requiem for a Redneck to go on your Kindle. I have also noticed that Amazon now has a free Kindle app for iphones and tablets. Is that cool or what?