Radiotherapy

7-Getting down to business

21st April 2020

I meet my next specialist – and I guess who will become the most important person for me for a while. I’m now firmly under the care and attention of the Oncologist who will be leading the team taking care of me. Although at that time I didn’t realise what an amazing team it is.

Anyway – he introduces himself – Dr Warren Grant.

Another Wozzer I thought, that’s an amazing great omen 🙂 I’m sure he felt the same about his new patient…

He has the confident but calming style of confirming what is what. ‘You know you have throat cancer Warren, and the good news is there’s no spread away from the throat. There were some patches seen on a lung but the MRI scan confirmed they are nothing to worry about – although nothing will be left to chance and we’ll keep an eye on that going forward’.

And so, it’s down to work. No messing or waffling. The treatment is fairly aggressive he says – six weeks of radiotherapy x 5 days a week and additionally two cycles of chemotherapy on weeks 1 and 4.

Honestly that left me reeling a bit. I was expecting radio only and had already researched some that reckon it’s enough on its own.
There’s good reason though. He continues… ‘This particular type of cancer has a good possibility of eradication, with a human survival rate of around 75% after 5 years. Of course I’ll take that – and try and increase the percentage.

The cancer has an official name: Squamous cell carcinoma, left oropharynx, with TNM staging of T3 N2 M0 HPV16 positive.

The explainer below is courtesy of Cancer Research UK

TNM stands for Tumour, Node, Metastasis. This system describes the size of the initial cancer (the primary tumour), whether the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes, and whether it has spread to a different part of the body (metastasised). The system uses letters and numbers to describe the cancer:

• T refers to the size of the cancer and how far it has spread into nearby tissue – it can be 1, 2, 3 or 4, with 1 being small and 4 large

• N refers to whether the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes – it can be between 0 (no lymph nodes containing cancer cells) and 3 (lots of lymph nodes containing cancer cells)

• M refers to whether the cancer has spread to another part of the body – it can either be 0 (the cancer hasn’t spread) or 1 (the cancer has spread)

From this it’s clear the cancer has been developing for a while (T3), but it’s never given me any indication, save the mild sore throat on and off over a couple of months. The main thing Vicki advised me later is M0 means no spread to other areas of the body.

Dr Grant continues… ‘We’ll being treatment in around 3 weeks, say mid-June and finish at the end of July. On average expect the treatment to intensify as it progresses and then some months of discomfort, but hopefully feeling better towards the autumn time’.

Before treatment begins, there’s more to be done and more of the team assigned to me, make initial contact:

Speech Therapist; Dietician; Radiology team for Mask making and Endoscopy team for inserting a feeding tube. And Lead Nurse Vicky is never far away.

Just amazing – and I don’t know half of it yet, except this Gloucestershire NHS Foundation Trust is an extremely well-oiled Rolls Royce of a machine. Every single person I’ve been in contact with – or staff that have phoned me are not just professional, but very personable – without exception.

It’s easy to say this, but I really mean it that I’m feeling pretty good about my condition – because I have total faith in this highly experienced team, who seem to give me the impression that I’m their only patient 🙂

And lets not forget we’re in the middle of a pandemic, causing the UK’s greatest ever drain on NHS resources right now.

26-What a year that was

Friday 11th December 2020

Today is exactly 6 months since I finished radiotherapy on Friday 12th June and ‘rang that bell’. So I thought a good day to reflect back over this mad year, which is both forgettable and definitely unforgettable…

And what a year indeed.

It started for me quite normally – as with most of us I guess. January started good for bookings in the travel business and then later that month, news of the coronavirus was starting to appear. I spent most of February cancelling the majority of our guest’s bookings. And then from March on – along with everyone else in the world, trying to make sense of things.

Reading back through my blog, it was the last day of March – while the UK was in ‘Lockdown 1’ that I strolled into Gloucester Royal Hospital A&E with my (now infamous) niggling sore throat.

And here I am now.

Larry the Lump has gone – beaten and K O'd in the final round by Radical Radiotherapy, although he gave me quite a hammering along the way. But I had an amazing team in my corner - so I was more than confident all along 🙂

My recovery from the radiotherapy is still going in the right direction. But fatigue; lacking a sense of taste and issues swallowing food are constant reminders of the effects of the cancer and treatment. As is the slightly numb left ear which has some nerve damage, also as a result of the radiotherapy.

But all in all – I’m told by the medics I’m in better shape than many after just six months post-treatment. Of course, the secondary tumors that were identified, are a constant reminder that there’s still a way to go. I’ll deal with them next year and of course, it will all be dependent on what further scans show.

It's not all bad though...

I’ve lost a lot of weight – some 35kg / 77lb or 5.5 stones. In fairness it was needed because I did need to shed some blubber, but I’ve gotta say – it’s a tough diet and is not recommended at all as an aid for weight-loss 😉

Still, I’m down a good three dress sizes and getting into clothes I’ve had (literally) hanging around since 2005. They’re almost back in fashion too!

Also in September was the ‘worldwide coffee morning’ that I held on Zoom, raising funds for Macmillan Cancer Charity. I have such fond memories of that day – meeting up on video with family and friends all around the globe.

Also – avid readers of this blog may remember there was a prize winner drawn from all the people that were on zoom with me that day – and the winner is a good mate of mine - Phil Butterworth, who I’ve known since my early days in Siem Reap, Cambodia, around 10 years ago.

I had comissioned a commemorative mug from Macmillan - specially printed and then shipped to the USA, where Phil now resides. Here’s a lovely selfie as sent to me from Phil.

Enjoy it mate!

So that nicely wraps up this chapter and the final one for 2020. I’m scheduled a further PET/CT scan sometime during January 2021 and I’ll update this blog with information, when I have the results from that.

But for now on behalf of Samros, Nisa and me, we extend our sincere thanks for all your messages of support and to wish you peaceful holidays and a healthy and happy New Year, wherever you are in the world.

Take care
Woz x

31-Big balls are not aways desirable

1st December 2021

Well, it was always coming, but a bit of a shock just the same. I’ve had a nagging pain in my back for a good couple of months or so. Not a lower back muscular pain and certainly not a sports injury!

I flagged this up at my recent meeting with my Oncologist – the ever-professional Dr Warren Grant. He did say that secondary tumours in the lung sometimes show few symptoms and for those that do, a low ‘nagging’ pain is not uncommon.

So, definitely time for a new CT scan to see what’s developed since my previous scan back in May, when the tumours were still relatively small.

The results of the scan came back last week and yep, it was a bit of a shock – to me, at least.

Metastatic (secondary) tumour development in right lung

Jan 2021 May 2021 Nov 2021 About the size of…
Tom 17mm 20mm 55mm Snooker / Pool ball
Dick 14mm 15mm 36mm Ping Pong / Squash ball
Harry 7mm 11mm 29mm Lollypop candy

I say ‘to me’ because Dr Wozzer indicated that these sizes are not too bad, when considering the overall size of a lung.

“Oh really?” I thought.

Anyway, he decided that now is a good time to begin treatments. The plan is for some ‘palliative radiotherapy’ now and most likely to follow with some cycles of chemotherapy in the new year.

So a couple of days, ago I was back to the Oncology Centre in Cheltenham, for a pre-treatment scan and some body mark-up.

Felt a bit strange (and disappointing) to be walking back in there nearly 18 months after the throat radiotherapy.

In another respect, a feeling of familiarity: The same receptionist greeted me with a ‘Hi Warren’ - obviously remembering me (or at least remembering the tin of biscuits I left back then).

And the radiologist doing the prep work was the ever-friendly William – who is always bright and cheerful and became a good ‘mate’ during the hard weeks of treatment back in May / June 2020.

Will took me through the procedure which was a quick scan to see the tumour locations and then a tiny ink tattoo on my chest, which defines the ‘reference point’ that will be used when aiming the radiation treatment.

I’ve known all year this treatment was coming – and I’m ever so glad that Dr Grant held off until mow. It’s allowed me a good summer and autumn to get around and see family and friends.

Equally I’m now relieved that treatment is commencing. Larry the Lump was well beaten – and remains so.

I also know that Larry's sons - Tommy the Tumour, Dick and Harry have been gearing up all year for a fight and I’ll be taking them on next week, with the first bout of palliative radiotherapy.

I'm scheduled for five treatments (known as 'fractions') on w/c 6th December.
More from me soon after x

32 – Palliative Radiotherapy – what does it do?

14 Dec 2021

Now I know how a ready meal feels. Cook on full power for 4 minutes and then rest for one minute.

I’ve now finished my fifth and final (for now?) fraction of Radiotherapy. So that’s been one treatment a day for five days. As I mentioned in my previous post, there’s no mask for body positioning in the treatment machine (LINAC), just a small tattoo on my chest.

Each day, I’m positioned on the machine and then the radiologists use lasers to ensure my body and the machine is in exactly the correct position. Then I must lay perfectly still for a few minutes as though my life depends on it. And to a great degree, I suppose it does!

I have to say I’m pleasantly surprised that the side-effects are not so bad at the moment – certainly when comparing with the extremely tough treatment to my throat last year. This treatment is really to ease the pain in my back, that’s been caused by the tumours increasing in size.

So, they are hopefully shrunk a bit in size, but my understanding is that it’ll be a few weeks before the full effects are known.

I’ve also had the time – and inclination – to read up some more on what radiotherapy does and what these treatments are given in ‘fractions’, rather than one good ‘zapping’ – so to speak. When I say ‘read up’ I really mean ‘skim read’ of the bits I can understand.

So here goes:

It starts off with the billions of cells that we have in our body. Normally they ‘just work’ and keep all our body working in tip-top shape. Different types of cells in the body do different jobs. But they are basically similar. They have our DNA which generally controls how the cells behave.

Cells come and go. They make copies (reproduce) in an orderly and controlled way and are needed to keep the body healthy. Sometimes they get damaged, and our body has amazing repair teams that can fix cells very quickly and get them good as new.

BUT, some cells get confused by instructions from our normal DNA and they start reproducing (mutating) in a disorderly way and become uncontrollable.

In the worst cases, they can’t be fixed by the repair teams. These worst-case mutated cells can become ‘cancer tumours’

Of course, there are a number of treatments to either kill-off the cancerous cells, or at least hinder their growth. These range from chemical therapy (chemotherapy) to radiation therapy (radiotherapy) and even newer treatments such as Immunotherapy.

I’ve also spent the past few weeks on my own self-administered treatment of Beerotherapy. I’m finding that high intake doesn’t actually control the tumours, do I do forget about them for a few hours. Treatment will continue for as long as I can get to the pub.

Anyway – back to radiotherapy!

The machine that I refer to is a medical linear accelerator (LINAC). I wrote an article on this last year here

It uses extremely high-power energy beams - let’s call these micro-bullets – moving at the speed of light and accurately aimed at the tumours. They’re ‘fired’ from outside the body and because they’re so minutely small and incredibly fast moving, I don’t feel anything while the treatment is being done.

Inside my body however, a number of things begin happening.

First, obviously the micro-bullets are also damaging good cells that are adjacent to the tumours – but my body’s repair teams get straight to work on repairing these. The really clever bit is that the cancerous cells that are getting blasted are not able to repair themselves anything like as effectively – and so bit by bit they become reduced or sometimes destroyed.

And this bit-by-bit thing is helped by what the medics call ‘fractionalisation’.

Which means that instead of one single dose of energy – in my case 20 Gy (grays) of energy (equivalent to around 200,000 normal chest x-rays) is given to me in five fractions of 4Gy per day. In this way my healthy cells are being repaired 24/7 and ready for the next treatment.

An analogy (admittedly not a great one) is to consider a car with four road tyres and a spare in the trunk. If the driver was unlucky enough to have a puncture in each – it would most likely to be less disruptive to have one puncture each day and repair it, rather than five punctures in the same day.

All the while, the cancerous tumours are in big trouble, because they don’t have the efficient repair teams to fix themselves.

So, fractionalisation is far better for the body. Of course, not all the healthy cells repair overnight – or even over days or weeks. Some of these also get damaged beyond repair and this becomes what we know as side-effects from the treatment.

And unless I’m one in a billion – I’ll feel these side-effects over the next few days, weeks or even months.

Which leads me nicely towards the holiday season. No more treatment until at least mid-January, when I see Dr Grant again and find out what comes next.

And that leads me nicely in to wishing you a very happy Xmas and a peaceful and prosperous New Year, wherever you are in the world.

Take care

Woz x

33 – Testing, testing…

31st March 2022

Wow, how time flies.

Looking back through my blog – it’s exactly 2 years to the day that I went to my local hospital with a bit of a sore throat. Mind you – it’s not a date I’d ever forget anyway!

I find it interesting to look back at the phases – from the shock of initial diagnosis in 2020, through the aggressive radiotherapy and recovery, to the ‘living with cancer’ phase of 2021 and now the palliative treatment phase due in 2022.

I have to say that right now, the issues are far more mental than physical.

Outwardly I look fine and generally feel okay – well, apart from breathlessness and a nagging back pain. Both are the result of the Tom, Dick and Harry tumours. They were stunted in growth when given a good zapping of radiotherapy a few months ago, but the little bastards are telling me that they’re finding a way to recover and annoy me further.

Inwardly though, it’s becoming more of a constant daily, hourly reminder that all is not well with me. While I try and only worry about things I can control, rather than things I can’t – this is for sure becoming more difficult with a poor prognosis and a generally uncertain future.

Still – as we all seem to say these days, it is what it is 😉

On the diagnostic front, there’s been a fair bit happening in these past couple of months or, but no firm decisions right now on the best way forward.

What we do know is that 2022 will see more treatments, just to relieve and hopefully slow the development of the current lung tumours and of course, any further spread to other organs.

And I’ve been a bit overwhelmed with the choices that might be coming my way.

It could be chemotherapy or immunotherapy or a combination of both or indeed, experimental trials.

I’ve started the pre-screening for a clinical trial involving a new type of vaccine combined with an immunotherapy drug. It sounds quite exciting, but of course there’s a few ‘buts’

It’s quite experimental, known as a ‘phase 2’ trial.
This means it’s got past a small sample of patients (generally with very advanced cancer) in a Phase 1 trial.

Phase 2 trials generally aim to find out:

  • if the new treatment works well enough to be tested in a larger phase 3 trial
  • which types of cancer the treatment works for
  • more about side effects and how to manage them
  • more about the best dose to give

This particular trial is being tested on around 190 volunteer patients in 10 countries.

It’s known as a ‘double-blind, randomised’ trial to test this new type of vaccine treatment combined with an immunotherapy drug that’s been used in the past for a similar type of cancer to mine.

The randomised bit is that 50% of the patients get the real vaccine and 50% get a placebo vaccine. All patients do get the immunotherapy drug though.

The double-blind bit is that neither the patient or the people delivering the treatment, know (or certainly won’t say) who is receiving the vaccine and who is receiving the placebo.

So all in all, this is really about the drug companies testing product combinations for possible future wide-scale treatments, using the latest ideas around. For the patient, it’s a gamble as to whether there’s any additional benefits – and by this, I mean survival time against more shall we say, the more conventional types of chemotherapy or immunotherapy.

Although, this trial might just be the ‘miracle cure’ that the world has been waiting for!

I’ll be discussing all my options during April with both the clinical trial team in Somerset and my own Dr Wozzer here in Gloucestershire. Pretty sure one way or the other, I’ll be having treatment before the summer.

Immunotherapy is definitely the hot subject in the oncology world right now. I’ll research and then write up some more on this, hopefully next week.

Until then – take care x