I chose radiation treatment for my prostate cancer because it allowed me to continue to work and because it has a 95% success rate.
On the first visit to the clinic with my wife, we were waiting in the lounge to have the process explained to us and for me to have a CT scan so that they knew the shape of my body. This was so that every time over the 8 weeks of my treatment they would be able to focus the radiation on the specific area to be nuked and minimise the risk of damaging my bodily organs.
My wife and I were sitting in the waiting room when a man rushed pass at a frantic pace, loosening his belt as he ran for the bathroom in a cold sweat. He was in so much of a hurry that he was sitting on the toilet before he had even got the door shut.
One of the things you can lose in this process is your modesty. I wouldn’t ever want to be that guy, when all the heads turn in his direction, embarrassed for him, turning away again as he comes out, hoping he didn’t see them.
The process is that roughly 45 minutes before you have your radiation treatment you need to have drunk enough water to have a full bladder when you have your therapy. The reason is that this helps push your organs away from the prostate treatment area, thereby protecting them from harmful rays.
I was lucky because I was often able to get the first appointment of the day, meaning that on those days I didn’t have to wait in the lounge with my full to bursting bladder for too long.
So you arrive at the hospital and check in with your calendar schedule and they ask you how you’re doing. I always had a stock answer whenever anyone asked how I was, which was “GREAT!”, with a big smile. Here they would say, “Actually how are you really doing, because when you are having radiation treatment, we actually need to to know?” That was a mindshift for me and there were times when I felt a bit sorry for myself and when other people asked how I was, I told them as well. I wish I hadn’t, but then they did ask right?
So the next thing you do is go downstairs to a changing room where you collect your yellow daffodil bag which contains your lava lava which you will wear for the next wee while, holding on to the water in your bladder. Your clothes go into the bag and you put it back on the shelf with the others, realising just how many people are currently getting radiation treatment like yourself. It’s all sorts of cancers of course, not just prostate.
I met some great people while waiting for my treatment, both patients and their partners and we shared battle stories. Often the partner was feeling more stressed than the patient. I met people who were from out of town who had to stay at Domain Lodge, a facility provided free by the Auckland Cancer Society for cancer patients because the distance was too far to travel each day. This had all sorts of consequences. Children still had to be looked after, bills still had to be paid and some of them were running their own business and typically the treatment was every day during the working week. This is one of the reasons why I am a staunch supporter of Relay For Life which is next weekend, the 10th overnight through to the 11th of March at the Millenium Sorts Institute on Auckland’s North Shore.
So it comes your turn and you adjust your lava lava so it won’t fall off and wander down the corridor, past the control room where they are going to watch you on camera, put your valuables on a chair. Then you lie gingerly down on the scanner bed, hoping you can hold your water.
The friendly staff chat away with you and each other as you get settled, with your head under the scanner and your legs on a pair of moulded supports. They put a pillow under your knees and you focus on your bladder.
Then they adjust your lava lava and with a pen of some sort draw a mark at the point where the radiation will centre, which becomes less embarrassing after the 20th time; and they leave the room. Then the noise starts up and they talk to you through headphones as the treatment begins. It only takes a few minutes and as it finishes, you thank them and rush for the bathroom to empty your bursting bladder as quickly as you can as they tell you how well you have done once again.
Sometimes you have to wait longer than your booking time and it can get pretty uncomfortable. One morning they had to do maintenance on one of the scanners and I had to wait so long that I had to go to the bathroom, empty my bladder and then drink another bottle of water and wait the best part of an hour for my already stretched bladder to fill up again.
The worst day was when someone before me arrived late and I had to wait over half an hour longer than usual before I got my turn. They said if I wanted to I could empty my bladder and start again, but I had to go to a meeting at work and I didn’t want to be at the hospital any longer than I had to. So I gripped on to the edges of my chair, tightened and loosened, tightened and loosened (not a typo) my core muscles focussing on not losing control of my bladder.
I came very close to having to rush to the bathroom several times, but I didn’t want to blow my perfect record. My pride rode to my rescue.
The pain and pressure was getting worse and I persisted. Nurses came to me a few times and asked me if I wanted to start again, pointing to a nearby water fountain (not the imagery you want at that time but well meaning). I replied that I would soldier on.
Eventually after about an hour I got my turn and barely adjusting my lava lava, just acknowledging to myself that by the time I got to the room, it might be unraveling from my body, I waddled to the machine and gingerly got onboard, hoping for everything I was worth, that I could hold it in.
We got settled and barely aware of the daily x (actually a little line) marks the spot being drawn by the nurse just above my privates. I just focused all my energy on my now very full bladder which was telling me that I wasn’t responding to the messages it was sending me. I was determined to hold it in, but it was getting more difficult by the minute and I was just wishing they could speed it up. Time seemed to go into slow motion, but the discomfort got worse.
Finally the nurses left the room and I lay there pulling up on my core muscles for all I was worth, cringing with the pain and being told through my headphones that I needed to keep still. “Easy for you to say I thought”.
No, I needed to pee and I needed to not pee and I needed to hold those muscles in. What if wet myself? What if I peed on the machine bed? I still had a little dignity and I remembered that guy, rushing for the bathroom on my first induction visit.
I almost got off the machine 3 or 4 times, but I hung in there. Then the radiation treatment started and amidst the din of he rotors, I thought to myself, “I just can’t hold on anymore, I have to get off!” Then realisation set in, as I was being reminded to keep still, that if I got off while the radiation was beaming at me, I could potentially damage other parts of my body.
I clung on for dear life, cringing, counting the seconds, trying to keep still and then after the machine stopped, I was halfway off the bed as the nurses were coming back and there I was.
Now I was the guy rushing for the bathroom for all I was worth, not bothering to waste time locking the door, letting the lava lava unravel to the floor as I dived for the toilet. Oh the relief through the pain!
I picked up my body with my bruised dignity, got changed, went to the bathroom again and finally walked up the stairs to the nurses station to get a smiley face on my monthly chart, to say I had my treatment for the day.
This had been one of the days that I was hoping would never happen to me, but they did tell me that we all go through it.
Eventually after 8 weeks I had completed my treatment and eagerly awaited my visit to the oncologist who I anticipated would have good news for me.
Unfortunately he didn’t. He said that while 95% of people respond well to the treatment and find themselves in remission, I was in the 5% who didn’t.
So after 2 months of drinking water, driving each morning to treatment and then off to work, I was no better off than I had been before I started. That was a bit of a body blow and whilst I understand statistics, I had thought about the odds and as a keen poker player had thought to myself that if I had gone into a casino for a tournament and been told that I had a 95% chance of being in the money at the final table, I would have been really excited. The 5% seemed really unlikely.
After each radiation treatment I would go into the hospital cafe and treat myself to a flat white and a huge cheese scone. I couldn’t have breakfast before the treatment, so this was my little reward to myself and I came to look forward to it. When I went back to the hospital for specialist appointments I usually went back to the cafe for nostalgia’s sake, but it never had the same satisfaction as it did on the days I had radiation treatment.
So here’s where the coffee comes in. A cup of good coffee costs around $5. Coincidentally, that is the level where a donation to Relay For Life becomes tax deductible. That means your $5 donation only really costs you around $3.50. That’s peanuts right? But what if all my readers gave that?
I was going to say, if you know anyone who has cancer, how about making a small donation in their honor, but you know me don’t you? You now know me better than you did before, because I have shared some very personal experiences with you.
Next weekend when I spend the night walking around the track at Relay For Life with my friends and family, I am doing so to help raise funds for the Cancer Society to help fellow cancer patients with accommodation, psychological help, research and much more. It is all rather meaningless if I don’t get donations and I haven’t even got a third of my modest target so far.
So here is my plea. Can you find it in your heart to make a $5 donation for a good cause? 1 in 3 Kiwis will get cancer. I hope that will never be you, but it will probably be someone you care about. Will you please help? I would be so grateful.
It’s been a real struggle this year to get donations. So I really thank you for paying it forward and also am very grateful to my friends and family who are in Team Early Birds, relaying for 18 hours to support me and also people who they have lost or are still fighting the good fight.