Rodney Warner, JD
Rodney Warner, JD

The whole world is watching, as the Fukushima Daichi nuclear power plant in Japan teeters on the abyss. Will its nuclear fuel melt, resulting in a huge release of high levels of radiation? Will valiant workers get this radioactive monster back under control? Stay tuned…

Radiation and cancer are often paired together. As I understand it, radiation can cause cancer. It can mutate genes, which can result in malignant cells. But, ironically, radiation can also kill malignant cells. Those malignant cells are more vulnerable to radiation than healthy ones. The theory is, if done correctly, and with some luck, the radiation will kill (hopefully all) malignant cells, without doing enough harm to the healthy ones to cause future problems.

For many of us who’ve dealt with cancer, radiation is no stranger, even if it hasn’t been used as a treatment. X-rays, CT scans, and PET scans all involve doses of radiation. For those of us who’ve “gone nuclear” with our treatment, it comes in all shapes, sizes, machines and even surgical implantation of radioactive substances.

In addition to the two chest x-rays, dozen or so CT scans and three or four PET scans I’ve had, I’ve also had radiation treatments. The first was to my abdomen. My Hodgkin’s lymphoma was mostly in my abdomen, so that was the “field” that was radiated. It’s a strange process, being strapped down on a gurney next to a machine (a linear accelerator) that looks like it came out of a science fiction movie. You’re told how safe the process is, then the tech closes that bank vault door behind her, she sees you behind the foot thick pane of Plexiglas and you’re all alone in the lead lined room. If this is so safe, why isn’t my radiation oncologist in here with me?

About two years later, as part of the preparation for my allogeneic bone marrow transplant, I had “total body irradiation” (TBI). It was used to damage and/or kill my bone marrow, to make room for the new, donated, bone marrow that would create a new immune system to kill my cancer cells (A fate they deserved, the little bastards!).

My first radiation treatment was very precise. My radiation oncologist didn’t want to irradiate anything that didn’t need it. The “field” was carefully mapped out. I was strapped down. There was lead shielding. I was told to keep still.

No such concerns with total body irradiation! They let it all hang out! No shielding, no protection, I am the field! I sat in a wheeled, Plexiglas box. The linear accelerator was pointed straight across the room at me. I got my dose, the tech returned to the room to wheel the box around (so I’d “cook” evenly), he retreated back to his bunker, then another dose. I did this three times in two days. Closest I care to be to being in a microwave oven.

Side effects of my first treatment were extreme fatigue and some skin burns. As for the TBI, it’s hard to say its side effects, because of the chemo I got shortly prior to it. What caused what, I don’t know, but I do know that before the allo transplant, I felt absolutely miserable. Like I’d been on a week long bender, with none of the benefits.

Radiation is good and bad. Bottom line, I’ve had a $%@*! load of radiation, and I know, long run, it’s probably not a great thing. But possibly, without it, I wouldn’t be here, in remission since March 2003.

4 thoughts on “Radiate

  1. My wife, Heather, started her first treatment yesterday. I imagined what the room must be like. What it would feel like to her. I immediately asked her about the experience when she came out. Only, Heather is wearing a specially made mask for her treatments. Her eyes are closed. She’s truly in the dark. She said she counted foot steps around her. Must have been two techs in the room. She described the sounds of the machine moving around. Then the noise of what could only be the radiation. She’ll come to know these sounds well. Like the imperfections in the tile of your familiar bathroom. The sounds of your furnace coming on each day. Only, she’ll forget them. I’m told, by next year some time, she will have no memory of these treatments. Her entire frontal lobe is the field and at least one of the casualties will be her memory. So I will remember for the both of us. Thanks for sharing, Rodney.

    1. Paul, I hope you will keep writing – keep a journal, start a blog (we’d be happy to have you)- Your writing is wonderful. My cousin had radiation for a frontal lobe tumor and though I accompanied her to many appts and know all about radiation, it is really difficult to put yourself in those shoes and truly understand what someone is going through. You did a wonderful job of painting that scary, lonely picture and I am sure other patients can relate and caregivers appreciate this window into the experience. Heather is fortunate to have you : )

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