Breast cancer, Cancer, Dublin, Hair regrowth, Health, Ireland, Radiotherapy, St Vincent's, UK, Women's Health

The Three ‘R’s: Radiotherapy, Rest & Recuperation

Two weeks after my final radiotherapy session, I finally understood what they meant about fatigue. It didn’t kick in until at least a month after I started radiation, and it wasn’t until late last week that I began to feel a bit debilitated by it. Nevertheless, I knew it was a side effect of the radio when I started needing an afternoon nap after a solid eight hours’ sleep. (Eight hours soon became nine hours, nine hours became 10, and before I knew it, I was sleeping 12 hours and still feeling exhausted.)

It’s both a mental and a physical kind of tiredness, but it’s not a constant thing – it really comes and goes. I wake up feeling reasonably sprightly but by lunch time I’m ready for a few hours of shuteye and sometimes I’ll be back in bed by 9pm. Some days I feel fuzzy headed and can’t concentrate, other times it’s more of a physical tiredness, but more often that not, I’m just sleepy and don’t feel like doing much.

All this, I’m told, is totally normal. The peak of the side effects usually occurs about two weeks after the final treatment, which is round about now, and the cumulative tiredness from the chemo and radiotherapy is likely to last a few months.

It’s easy to feel frustrated by this. After all, I’ve had almost nine months of my life effectively taken away from me by cancer. I spent six of those months cooped up in my parents’ house, unable to go out and socialise or work. Now that I’m no longer bed-bound by chemo, I want to recover lost time: work, go out, have fun, travel, live a normal life. Unfortunately, however, I’m not quite yet free of the side effects of treatment and I’m going to have to hold onto my urge to run marathons for a little longer.

Last week I read a brilliant essay by Dr. Peter Harvey, consultant clinical psychologist at the Leeds Teaching Hospitals Trust, which completely captures this phase of treatment. It’s a long read, but I recommend it to anyone who wants to understand how it really feels to step off the rollercoaster of cancer treatment and be left reeling, still dizzy-headed, wobbly and – quite frankly – wanting to vom from the ride.

One of the things Dr. Harvey mentions is the importance of allowing yourself time for recuperation,  convalescence and rehabilitation after cancer treatment, and this doesn’t happen overnight. I took this week off work because I was struggling to concentrate through the tiredness, but I’m not going to suddenly revert to being a bouncing ball of energy (Was I ever?) as of Monday morning. It takes time.

Here are a couple of paragraphs that explain a little about the need for proper rest:

It is a widely held belief, often correct, that the treatment of an illness is meant to make you feel better. One of the many paradoxes of cancer is that, more often than not, the treatment makes you feel worse. This is not surprising – we cut and possibly mutilate, inject you with poisonous and powerful chemicals, subject you to dangerous rays all in the name of treatment. The aggressiveness and power of the treatments are a necessary response to the power of the disease, of course, but this very power takes its toll in other ways. […]

All too often I meet people who, for quite understandable reasons, want to get back to doing the things they used to before the diagnosis but find themselves falling at the first hurdle because they simply find the whole thing too much. In my view, however smoothly your treatment has progressed and however well you have tolerated the various indignities to which we subject you, some time simply to recharge and recover – to recuperate – is absolutely essential. This is the necessary foundation on which to build recovery. […] Take however long you feel you need. Recuperating is the very first step in a process of rebuilding.

And I think that’s just where I am right now: the recuperation stage. Sitting in my flat in Dublin, drinking milkless tea, listening to the rain outside and taking it one day at a time.

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13 thoughts on “The Three ‘R’s: Radiotherapy, Rest & Recuperation

  1. Yeah it’s strange kind of fatigue. I remember it well. You’re doing great though, just have to hang in a little longer. But you’ll be running again!! XX

    • Oh so you had your radiotherapy before chemo? Sorry, I can’t keep up with who’s had what treatment! As you will know, it’s tiring but it’s nothing compared to chemo. I saw that you were in hospital again… hope you’re recovering well from the last bout! Not too many more to go now, right? xx

  2. Bryan Foat says:

    Hola Laura – hang in there!

    You are done with the Active part of the treatment process; now you are are in the Passive part of the treatment process [and the passive part can be harder in many ways, especially for active people…i think you are in that group 😉 ]. The point is, recovery is part of the process…a necessary and unavoidable part…but one that is hard (especially mentally) to accept, at times.

    Allow me a little foreshadowing, if I may, based on experience. You can get on with your life and do many of the things you did before – maybe even all of them – and many more you never did before. What you can´t do is go back to the way things were pre-cancer. This whole experience of the last 2 years or so will alter the way the rest of your life unfolds, in little ways and others not so little. It isn´t a bad thing, it just is. One day at a time.

    • Thanks Bryan. Did you actually manage to not go back to your pre-cancer life though, given that you carried on working full-pace at Bbg? To be honest my life already changed completely the day I left Bbg – a year and one week ago, can you believe! I can’t see myself ever wanting to work as crazily as I did there and having that lifestyle again. But again, I’m not convinced it was my lifestyle that caused my cancer. I was stressed, yes, but I was healthy and did plenty of exercise. Anyway, I’m definitely committed to living at a slower pace in future! Hope you’re doing well 🙂

  3. Adriana Tomalino says:

    Así es Lauri, ni más ni menos. Yo no tuve radioterapia; el cansancio de la quimioterapia me duró hasta 2-3 meses después de finalizado el tratamiento. Hoy en día,me ha quedado facilidad para cansarme mucho aún haciendo cosas que en otro momento me resultaban fáciles.
    Pero aquí estamos, disfrutando de las cosas más simples y viviendo uan vida bastante buena.
    Abrazos, Adri.

    • Gracias Adri 🙂 Si, todavia estoy cansada de la quimioterapia, es verdad. Espero que en unos meses este mucho mejor. Hace casi un anio que no estoy en Argentina… como el tiempo vuela! Besos, Laura

  4. Sukie23 says:

    Thankyou Laura for that recommending that essay by Dr Harvey. For me, it has come at the perfect time, lost in a new world post treatment, drained, battered and trying to find a new way. It makes sense to give ourselves time, there is some pressure (in places) that you should just be able to suddenly bounce back or be cured and return to a pre-cancer state far faster than is possible. The article has given me ‘permission’ in a way to be able to take my time I wish you well with your recovery and send strength to you and all the other people who are suffering this horrible illness.

    • Hi Sue, glad to hear you found it useful. it was shared by another fellow breast cancer fighter I’ve met through my blog down in Bath. I found it really useful too, glad you did! Hope you are doing alright with all the nutritional stuff now. I’d say I’ve given up dairy about 50% – totally given up milk but still eating a fair bit of cheese and chocolate … mostly dark chocolate but I do confess to having eaten a bag of mini eggs yesterday! Well, it’s Easter soon and we’ve got to treat ourselves, right? Happy international women’s day to you and keep fighting! Loads of love xx

  5. Adriana Tomalino says:

    Happy international women´s day to you too!
    Yo también leí el artículo, creo que describe muy bien las sensaciones y sentires de quienes transitamos todo ésto.
    Lo que dice Bryan es bien claro y contundente. Así es.
    Gracias y muchos besos. Seguí disfrutando de un chocolatito de vez en cuando que te va a hacer bien!

  6. Cancer survivorship is a relatively new field of study and was one of the reasons I wrote A Life Less Lost, to highlight some of the unexpected challenges. I’m sure you’ll get your zing back! How’s the hair coming?

    • Thanks Kimm, the hair is coming along brilliantly actually, thanks! I’ll post more pics again soon. I’m really pleased with it, can’t stop touching it, it’s so nice to have hair again, albeit extremely short! Hope you and Howard are well xx

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