Rectal Cancer Patient Turned Committed Advocate After Treatment
John Lloyd's cancer treatment story begins in 2009. At the age of 56, he started noticing some bleeding after bowel movements, so he scheduled a colonoscopy with his doctor to determine the cause of his symptoms. What his doctor discovered was a lemon-sized tumor in his rectum. The doctor took a sample of cells for testing to determine whether or not the tumor was cancerous. A few days later, John received the news that he had rectal cancer.
His doctor recommended 28 treatments of radiation with concurrent oral chemotherapy followed by surgery. Scared and confused, John went on an "information-seeking binge." Through his research, he learned that this was the standard treatment plan for rectal cancer. The purpose of radiation treatment and chemotherapy before surgery is to shrink the tumor as much as possible. By shrinking the tumor, the doctor has a much better chance in surgery of preserving the sphincter so that an ostomy bag is not required after treatment.
John began his radiation treatment by coming in for "simulation," where his clinical team took a CT scan to visualize the location of the tumor and surrounding tissues. During the CT scan, they helped him find a reproducible position for treatment. He was positioned using a "belly board" that allows a patient to lie face-down on the treatment table, or "couch." On the board, the patient is supported at his chest and hips, with an opening for the belly to relax toward the ground. He was also instructed to drink a lot of water before treatment, to make the bladder heavier. This is meant to help the abdominal organs "fall away" from the area being treated, thus minimizing their exposure to radiation. His clinical team also made a small tattoo on his back, about the size of a freckle, to help with future alignments in the treatment room.
When John came in for his actual treatment, his clinical team helped him into the same position they created in simulation. His radiation therapists made small marks on his skin with a felt marker to line him up with laser pointers in the room. Once his alignment was confirmed, the radiation therapist left the room to administer his treatment from the control room. Although the treatment set up took several minutes, the radiation beam was only on for approximately ninety seconds per treatment.
During the course of his radiotherapy treatments, John also took oral chemotherapy drugs to help make the tumor cells more susceptible to the radiation.
John experienced some acute (short duration) and a few long-term side effects from treatment. His short-term side effects included sexual dysfunction and fatigue. "What wasn't clear to me at the time was that they were acute side effects (meaning short term). I had no idea if they were [going to be with me] from now on, for the duration of treatment, or for just a few days." The acute side effects eventually disappeared, leaving him with only one perceptible long-term side effect — neuropathy, which is most likely related to one of the chemotherapy drugs he took after surgery. Neuropathy is a type of nerve damage that can cause the feet and sometimes the hands to tingle as if they are asleep. His sexual health has returned to normal.
With an undergraduate degree in biology, John was particularly interested in the radiation technology used to treat his cancer and wanted to talk to the center's physicist about his side effects. He learned that treatment affects patients differently, and that ultimately he could choose to stop treatment, or to continue and accept the medication the doctor offered him to help with symptoms of his side effects. He was adamant that he was going to continue treatment.
After completing radiation and chemotherapy treatment, John scheduled his surgery. He received great news after his surgery –there was no evidence of any remaining tumor. Another colonoscopy a year later also revealed no evidence of the tumor. He has also had several MRIs, about 6 months apart from each other, since he ended treatment, and as of the time of this writing four years later, is still free of cancer.
Over the past few years, John has become a passionate advocate for newly diagnosed rectal cancer patients. He wrote his own blog at http://colon-semicolon.blogspot.com/, and started a chat group online for Stage 4 colorectal patients called Survivorchat.org. And, he volunteers with the Colon Cancer Alliance (www.ccalliance.org). He encourages everyone to get screened regularly to help catch cancers in their early stages and improve treatment options. To the newly diagnosed patient, he advises, "There is a big difference between acute and long term side effects – acute side effects can generally be managed."
Important Safety Information Varian Medical Systems' linear accelerators are intended to provide stereotactic radiosurgery and precision radiotherapy for lesions, tumors, and conditions anywhere in the body where radiation treatment is indicated.
Radiation treatments may cause side effects that can vary depending on the part of the body being treated. The most frequent ones are typically temporary and may include, but are not limited to, irritation to the respiratory, digestive, urinary or reproductive systems, fatigue, nausea, skin irritation, and hair loss. In some patients, they can be severe. Treatment sessions may vary in complexity and time. Radiation treatment is not appropriate for all cancers. You should discuss the potential for side effects and their severity as well as the benefits of radiation with your doctor to make sure radiation treatment is right for you.