By: Kathryn Brolen
When my husband was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, the doctor told us we were lucky. “This is a good cancer,” she said. I wanted to slap her. Yet for all her bravado, she at least moved quickly. The thyroid surgery was scheduled immediately; radiation would follow several weeks later. At every step, the surgeons and doctors were confident. Cocky, even. They kept telling us what a great cancer he had, like he’d won a prize.
What They Didn’t Tell Us
A week before he swallowed his radioactive iodine, the doctor announced I would not be allowed to drive him to or from his treatment. It was too dangerous. He couldn’t be in the same room as our girls for the first week, and he couldn’t sleep in the same bed as me for the first two. Although it was Christmas, I had to pack our family up and ditch my husband to fight the final stage of his battle alone.
They were right about one thing, though. We were lucky. One rough Christmas vacation was well worth being declared cancer-free. Side effects were minimal: headache, sore throat. And, like many radiation patients, he was very, very tired for a long time.
How to Fight
As we were, many patients may feel relieved to find they can be treated by radiation rather than chemo. Chemo is more invasive, and the side effects can be worse than the disease itself. So much emphasis is placed on the perks of radiation, in fact, that many patients and caregivers forget that it, too, can take a toll. These are some of the side-effects:
- Exhaustion: Radiation is famous for tiring you out, so get lots of sleep and take it easy when you’re awake. Catch up on your Netflix queue. Finish organizing your photo albums. Whatever you can do that’s low-key is a good plan.
- Mouth problems: Radiation, like chemo, can kill off healthy cells along with the targeted cancer cells. Patients undergoing radiation may experience mouth sores, infections, dry mouth or tooth decay. If possible, get a trip in to the dentist before treatment begins. Avoid crunchy or acidic foods that can stress an already delicate environment. Take extra good care of your mouth during treatment.
- Skin problems: Rashes and dry, flaky skin are both common with radiation, particularly at the location where the treatment is applied. Keep skin hydrated and moisturized as much as possible. Keep an eye on troubled areas so that if irritation evolves into sores, they can be treated immediately.
The Subtlety of Radiation
Although the lack of blatant physical distress is one of the blessings of radiation over chemo, it’s also one of the curses. Without the extreme physical side effects to remind you, you may forget your body is fighting a difficult battle. Remembering to take care of yourself may be more challenging for both you and your caregiver. Keep in mind that although the side effects of radiation may be more subtle, the treatment is still hard on your body. However, many of the side effects will resolve themselves after treatment, and life can return to normal – only minus the cancer this time.