Starting radiation therapy is intimidating. There are a lot of unknowns, a lot of fears, and a lot of “what ifs” that arise, but with the right education about what to expect and how to cope with that, I feel some of those fears can be eased and it might be slightly easier to push your way through the radiation therapy process.
Things will inevitably change throughout treatment and healing. Life has already changed tremendously with a cancer 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 either. While it’s hard to pick out a multitude of positive changes that take place (because cancer just isn’t fun), I’ve chosen 5 practices that absolutely, without a doubt carried me through with far more success than it might have turned out otherwise.
Drink plenty of water
Hydration is important always, but as radiation passes through your skin, your skin dries out, it gets irritated, and it gets very uncomfortable. While moisturizing the surface is crucial (which we’ll get to shortly), moisturizing the inside of your body is JUST as crucial. Our bodies thrive on clear liquids much like a car runs more smoothly with clean oil in it, so make sure you are drinking lots of water and other hydrating substances before you begin treatment, while you are being treated, and afterwards as well.
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. It’s unavoidable at this point, but 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 along the way.
For head and neck patients (like me) eating is going to be much harder than usual, and it will be a mental struggle as well as a physical struggle. Things might not taste right, your mouth might burn, and the taste in your mouth in general can be unappetizing. But while it will be harder to eat and drink, it’s so very important to push through and make yourself continue to swallow. Try to remember that the pain is temporary, but losing the ability to swallow is not (in most cases) and once it’s gone, it’s very hard to get back.
The next obvious question (and the most common question I’ve been asked about in my journey) is what are the best things to eat during treatment. I had a pretty rough time with losing my taste and eventually the sores and irritation in my mouth, but I absolutely survived on scrambled eggs, high-protein spaghetti noodles, and Carnation Instant Breakfast. They 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. And dont get discouraged about losing some weight. It’s normal, but fight HARD to keep your weight up as much as possible!
Get plenty of rest
Someone (thankfully) told me this early on, because I typically insist on going and going until I simply run out of steam. 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 one of the last to subside .
I chose to work every day throughout my treatment which I 100% think helped my mental status, but I stayed pretty exhausted. Having something to do served as a nice distraction for me but I was a total sloth while I was in the office. 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 and uncomfortable 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. (I like to joke and say this part prepared me for motherhood someday).
Moisturize, moisturize, moisturize
This goes along with hydration, but this time I’m specifically talking about your skin. Your skin will likely take a bit of a beating during your treatments and specifically towards the end, depending on how many treatments are planned for you. This means it will become more and more crucial that you keep the treatment area very well moisturized. It will also feel more comfortable to have something on it to cool it down and give your skin a little more flexibility.
They will probably tell you not to put anything on your skin within 2-3 hours of coming in for treatment, but other than that your skin should be slathered in moisture every other second of the day. This is particularly important during the night time hours when you have less control of what your skin touches and how much you’re moving around. It worked best for me to put my cream on before bed and then cover it very loosly with gauze until my lukewarm shower the next morning. I had a decent amount of weepiness towards the end where my skin would drip and leak fluid so the guaze helped control the mess a bit. I will say, it made for more painful mornings sometimes if the gauze had gotten stuck to my skin without enough cream in between.
Below are a few creams/ointments in particular that work exceptionally well, but it’s all about finding what feels best and works best for you.
- Aquaphor (most grocery and/or drug stores carry this product)
- Utterly Smooth cream (you can typically find this at walmart, walgreens, cvs, or your local drug store)
- Beta Glucan cream (This is magical. Also expensive but worth it)
Stay as active as you can
If this sounds slightly contradictory to the previous statement, it might be, but let’s just say it needs to be a balance. When you have the opportunity to sleep, sleep. But when you are awake and feeling ok, try and move around and occupy your mind and body with things that are “normal.” We all know that normal can be somewhat of a lost cause in these trying days but it feels good to achieve even the little things by yourself that make you feel independent and healthy. It’s something real “normal” people take for granted, but something that we can feel accomplished for. Even something like taking a shower by myself was a victory for me. Focus on one day at a time.
I hope and pray these things help you in some way along your journey to healing and wellness. Some days will naturally be easier than others, and the 2nd half of treatment often feels easier that the first because there is an end goal. There’s light at the end of the tunnel. But no matter what your days of treatment look like, remember to breathe and be thankful for each moment, big and small. Each and every single day that you have breath in your lungs, is a day the Lord still saw purpose in your life.