Starting radiation therapy is certainly intimidating. There are a lot of unknowns, a lot of fears, and a lot of what ifs that come up, but with the a healthy understanding about what to expect, many of those fears can be eased and your journey through radiation might be slightly better.
I’m not sure there’s anyone that goes into day one (or even consultation) thinking that the journey won’t change things.
Things will inevitably change.
Life has already changed tremendously with diagnosis, but changes will also come as you prepare for treatment, begin treatment, and as you power through each and every radiation appointment. These don’t all have to be negative changes though.
While it’s hard to pick out a multitude of positive changes that take place (because cancer just isn’t fun), I’ve picked out 5 things that absolutely, without a doubt carried me through with far more success than I might have had otherwise.
Drink plenty of water
Hydration is important always. Our bodies are made up of mostly water and they’re also good at telling us when we haven’t had enough water, which is helpful if we listen.
As radiation passes through your skin each day, your skin will begin dry out, get irritated, and likely become very uncomfortable. While moisturizing the surface is crucial (which we’ll get to next), moisturizing the inside is JUST as important. Your body needs the lubrication to continue to function at the highest level it can, so drink all the clear liquids you can. The cool water will probably feel good going down anyway!
Stock up on protein
Did you know that protein is the nutrient that rebuilds the cells in your body? Radiation’s sole purpose is to destroy cells, specifically the bad ones, but it will inevitably destroy some of the good ones too as it makes its way to the tumor location. Since this is the case, you’ll want to ingest foods high in protein throughout treatment so that your body has a little extra help with rebuilding healthy cells along the way.
For head and neck patients (like me) you might find that eating is much harder than usual, and it will be a mental struggle as well as a physical struggle. Things won’t taste right, your mouth will burn, and the taste in your mouth in general can be unappetizing. You won’t want to eat, but it’s so important to push through and make yourself continue to swallow. Remember, the pain is often temporary, but losing the ability to swallow is less temporary (in most cases).
So if eating will be difficult and unappealing, where do you even start with nourishing your body? I had a particularly rough time with losing my taste and eventually the sores and irritation in my mouth, but I survived on scrambled eggs, high-protein spaghetti noodles, and Carnation Instant Breakfast. These are the main food items I found that didn’t burn my tongue, didn’t have overwhelming flavors, and still provided the nutrients my body needed to make it through. I also ate a lot of tomato soup which burned like fire, but it tasted the most like food so I ate it on repeat!
Really, whatever you can find that gives you calories and protein is perfect! Stuff it in and swallow it down. You’ll be thankful later on.
Get plenty of rest
With radiation, you run out of steam FAST, so if I could do it again I would sit my rear on the couch and take a zillion naps the week before I started treatment. This was the first side effect I noticed and it was one of the last to subside too.
I also chose to work every day throughout my treatment which I 100% think helped my mental status. Having something to do served as a nice distraction for me but I was a total sloth while I was there. Keep in mind that treatment and work were one in the same for me so don’t feel bad if you’re not up to working, but outside of work…sleep, sleep, sleep. Then nap, and repeat.
Towards the end when my skin was uncomfortable, I had a harder time sleeping through the whole night and I would wake up hungry because I wasn’t getting my normal caloric intake that I was used to. So the extra sleep I afforded myself during the day was so valuable.
Moisturize, moisturize, moisturize
If you’ve followed along with any of my blogs you know I harp on this one quite a bit. But keeping your skin soft and supple leading up to radiation, throughout radiation, and after radiation is crucial to your healing and the wear and tear your skin will experience.
The greasier the better is the rule and if you didn’t have to go through chemo and your hair is long enough to stick to your neck, prepare to get well-acquainted with your hair in a ponytail and daily washes.
Preparing your skin ahead of time will set you ahead with your routine once radiation begins and you start experiencing the expected skin toxicity. It will feel like (and kind of look like) a sunburn but creams, ointments, and lotions should be the goo of choice rather than aloe or gels that dry and get sticky. I promise, dry and sticky will not be pleasant in this scenario. So lube up and get used to feeling goopy in that area for a little while. Healing takes time.
Stay as active as you can
This one seems somewhat contradictory to that part about making sure you get enough rest, but there is certainly a balance. You want to make sure you are keeping yourself active enough to maintain muscle strength and healthy body function, but you also don’t want to push yourself to where you don’t feel like doing anything. Consistency is key and will also be important throughout treatment as well, even if you have to alter what that means a bit during treatment. The main goal here is to do what you feel like doing and do what you enjoy!
Onward and upward, friends!