Having internal radiotherapy
Lisa Askew is 33. She was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2007. Part of her cancer treatment included internal radiotherapy (brachytherapy). This is her experience of this treatment.
I started feeling unwell in January 2006. I had abdominal pain, pain during and after sexual intercourse, heavy periods and bleeding between periods. I felt tired and run down. My husband, Andrew, and I were also trying unsuccessfully for a baby. I visited my GP who wondered if I might have a cyst or endometriosis. He referred me to my local hospital for both an internal and external ultrasound scan. The results came back clear as had all my routine smear results.
In March I was referred to a specialist who prescribed some drugs to help regulate my periods and reduce the bleeding. I was advised to continue trying for a family. They were sure my problems were due to endometriosis and this would correct itself once I became pregnant. I saw my GP regularly as I felt so unwell. I was also increasingly concerned there was something seriously wrong with me.
In January 2007, after numerous visits to the GP and the hospital I was finally seen at the colposcopy clinic for a detailed examination of my cervix. The specialist nurse I saw was really concerned by the amount of bleeding I experienced and rushed through the results. Two days later I was told I had stage1 cervical cancer.
Andrew and I were devastated. But there was more bad news to come. Further tests showed that the cancer was bigger than originally thought. I was given two choices, a hysterectomy or chemotherapy and radiotherapy. I opted for the surgery because then the cancer would be gone from my body.
My surgery was scheduled for February. The morning after the operation my surgeon and Andrew came into my room. I was surprised to see Andrew there so early in the day as it wasn’t visiting time. He was there because the surgeon had yet more bad news. During the operation it had become clear that the cancer was quite extensive, it had spread into my lymph system and part of the tumour was attached to my pelvic wall. The surgeon explained he hadn’t been able to operate as planned and that I needed to start a different type of treatment as soon as possible.
I was recommended to have a course of concurrent chemotherapy and radiotherapy (chemoradiation) followed by 2 high doses of internal radiotherapy. I started this treatment in March and at the time was given a 50-50 chance of survival.
I had radiotherapy every week day for 5 weeks and each Tuesday I also had chemotherapy. On these days I had to be in the hospital at 8am and as soon as I had the chemo I would be taken straight for radiotherapy.
Two weeks after I had finished my chemoradiation I had my first internal radiotherapy. I went into hospital the day before so that I was ready to go down to theatre first thing in the morning. I was put under anaesthetic and then 2 rods were placed into my womb. This was the longest part of the procedure. I had to be scanned to ensure that the rods were in the right place. Then I had to wait for any swelling to settle down. Finally I was taken in for the radiotherapy - this only took about 10 minutes. After this I went back to the ward. The whole procedure took all morning.
I found the treatment really uncomfortable. My legs were bandaged up so that I remained still and didn’t dislodge the rods. I also had a drip so I could have painkillers. Luckily on both occasions I was a bit ‘out of it’ due to a combination of the anaesthetic and the morphine. After my first treatment I went home in the evening. But after my second treatment I stayed in hospital overnight because I was so tired and felt really sick with the painkillers, although an anti-sickness drug helped.
During my chemoradiation I had many different side effects sickness: diarrhoea, pain, shakes, paleness, mouth ulcers and loss of appetite. I also lost all my body hair 4 weeks into treatment, except the hair on my head. On the plus side the bleeding finally stopped. For me the worst side effects were tiredness and anxiety. Throughout my treatment I was really frightened that it wouldn’t work.
I had a lot of support from my GP, district nurses and Macmillan nurses which helped me cope. Every Friday I went to my local hospice. There I had the opportunity to chat with other patients, have complementary therapies and be involved in other activities. I had assumed that a hospice was a place where people went when their lives were about to end, but I was wrong - it is an amazing place.
I have had to learn to cope with some long term damage caused by the internal radiotherapy. I have urgency when I need to go to the toilet. And my bowel movements are much looser now. I have pain in my hip bone that the doctors think is linked to my radiotherapy. The treatment also meant that I became menopausal and I have to take HRT.
In August 2007 I received the fantastic news that I was cancer free. I still have regular check-ups and if I have any concerns I know I can ring my doctors at the hospital and be seen straight away. The treatment has left me infertile. This is a great sadness for me and Andrew. I feel as if I’ve been robbed of what Mother Nature intended and I’m still trying to come to terms with that. I keep busy and am back working part time and I am involved in fundraising for both cancer research and my local hospice. I know that I’m so lucky to be alive today.
- Cervical cancer is the second most common cancer in women under 35
- There were 671 new cases diagnosed in the UK in 2005
- Surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy are all used to treat cervical cancer
- There is a national cervical screening programme and all eligible women should be invited for routine screening. Cervical screening is important because it can identify changes in the cells before they become cancerous
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