Radiotherapy - Catherines story


Originally published in September 2002 icon

Catherine Woollams

My personal experience with radiotherapy

By Catherine Woollams

To be told you need to have radiotherapy is daunting for many people.

"What will happen?"
"Will it hurt?"
"What else should I be doing?"

There are so many questions you may have. Catherine Woollams, a brain cancer patient, tells her own story and gives you a few tips on how to make it all the more effective.

Catherines Story

In April 2001, when I was 22 years old, I was quite unexpectedly diagnosed with a brain tumour. Id felt a bit tired for six weeks or so and almost blacked out once, so I guess there had been warning signs.

Open quotesThe national health went into overdrive and 
                                I have nothing but praise for itClose quotes

After a scan at St. Thomas Hospital confirmed the tumour, the national health went into overdrive and I have nothing but praise for it.

From initial diagnosis to surgery was just four days, and then about six days after I was diagnosed as having a grade 3 to 4 malignant tumour, and a few days later I was told that I would need about six weeks of radiotherapy.

Apparently the norm in this situation is 6 weeks of 5 times a week (seemingly, you get Saturdays and Sundays off for good behaviour!)

This process would effectively zap the remaining cancer cells. My father had been a biochemist. He gave me an explanation about cancer cells being rapidly dividing cells, and how radiotherapy is very useful with brain tumours as it only attacks rapidly dividing cells, leaving my brain cells, which dont divide, pretty much untouched. I was rather pleased about this fact - especially as I had just finished a Chemistry and Law degree at Bristol, and the prospect of becoming a cabbage didnt appeal too much!

I was let out of hospital a week after surgery, and then it was approximately three weeks before I visited my specialist who was to plan and oversee the radiotherapy. As much as youd like to get on with it, and start immediately, they have to give you some time to let the scars heal.

Cup of coffee

When I was first diagnosed, dad went into overdrive creating a new diet and a programme of vitamin supplements. He banned me from all sorts of things, like dairy, alcohol, antibiotics and caffeine, and changed my diet to include salads, fish, fresh vegetables, lemon grass, pumpkin and sunflower seeds, noni juice (I did not normally eat any fruit), green tea and essiac. He had me on beta-carotine, selenium, zinc, in fact so many supplements I cant remember them all! But most of all I was eating lots of garlic and soya, and taking soya isoflavones and lecithin!

Coenzyme Q 10, fish oils, soya lecithin (choline and inositol), echinacea, curcumin and folic acid have all been shown in research to be good for brain tumour patients.

My first experience with radiotherapy was meeting my hilarious mask maker, Neil. I had to have a Perspex mask made of my face so that they could accurately draw on it, hold me in in place with it and direct the laser beams with deadly accuracy. It sounds horrendous but it was absolutely fine - Ive even kept the mask! It sounds crazy, but Neil was so great, I spent most of the time imagining I was at the beautician rather than in hospital!

My first and last treatment was probably my most terrifying. My first because I had over exaggerated the whole process in my mind. The machinery was so daunting I had imagined everything from James Bond to Aliens and of course, it was nothing like that. Id lie on my metal bed, have my mask placed and locked on me, and be lined up. I was then zapped from three different positions - each lasting a maximum of 20 seconds only. In fact, if there were any delay it was merely caused by me chatting to the radiotherapists! You just dont feel ANYTHING.

My last treatment was traumatic because I was so used to the daily treatment and by now I had made a load of friends. More importantly, I felt like I was was doing something about my cancer every day. Now it was all to stop. In fact, I learned, it doesnt. The radiotherapy continues inside you for something like four to six weeks after your last session.

Dad had taken me off lycopene, beta-carotine and vitamin C during the radiotherapy. He was frightened it would stop the action of the zapping. However, in talking to my specialist it transpired that selenium and soya isoflavines were excellent things to be taking, as they made the radiotherapy more effective.

Open quotesThere are obvious side effects from the treatmentClose quotes

There are obvious side effects from the treatment. As time goes on it may burn your skin (I looked like I had a suntanned forehead). However, washing soap free, just with water and using a good Aloe Vera moisturiser helps. I was given one by the hospital.

I did get tired, but that didnt start until weeks two to three. You just have to allow your body time. Sleep when youre tired, theres no disgrace. I did have an occasional depressed moment but if the people around you care for you, and are watchful and positive, they will see you through. I also felt a little sick; the hospital recommended I drank two to three litres of water a day, to stop it because it is caused by the need to flush the dead cells out of your system. Apparently peppermint tea can help too.

I lost my hair during the treatment, but in my case this was obviously due to being "zapped" directly on my head. My dad invested in a specialist wig maker for me, and it definitely allows you to keep your self-esteem and maintain a near normal social life.

I took up yoga, and saw a visualiser - good for keeping you focused on the the future and a positive outcome. In your down moments it is important to remember that the treatment only takes up a few weeks of your life.

The last thing I can tell you is that you should try and go to every session, no matter how difficult it is, or how down you are. Apparently, lots of people miss sessions and this is crazy because the dosage levels of radiotherapy have been worked out accurately, and missing a session or two can make all the difference. Even if you are late they will fit you in.

Open quotesI finished radiotherapy on 9th July 2001 and 
                                took a full month to recoverClose quotes

I finished radiotherapy on 9th July 2001 and took a full month to recover. I was lucky because my Dad has a house in the South of France, so I went there with some friends. Dad took on the role of pill provider (apparently astragalus, cats claw, echinacea, wild yam, and a little organic iron were added into my mix of pills to rebuild my immune system and blood count) and we had some fun, even though I still had my tired moments. I did my yoga every day because, like the pills, yoga boosts your immune system too. Unbeknown to me, Dad mixed a load of anti-parasite herbal pills in with the others, as quite often cancer can be brought on by parasites. By the middle of August I was given the OK to go back to work, even if it was only two days a week!

I couldnt have a scan to see what had happened for another eight weeks because the surgery scars and the dead cells just show up as a fuzzy mess in earlier pictures. Even at eight weeks it wasnt too clear and I had a second scan a couple of weeks later.

Fortunately, everything had worked according to plan, and as I write this 16 months on from the fateful diagnosis, I am told that Im all clear. My hair has almost completely returned, although I seem to have gone from a straight blonde to a curly dark haired 23 year old!

I look back on radiotherapy now, funnily enough, with fond memories and even a smile. But most of all with a big thank you to all the amazing people who helped me.

Catherine Woollams


Sadly, on October 22nd 2004 at 2.00 am Catherine Woollams passed away. The oncologist told her parents that when he first saw her he gave her 6 months maximum to live, as it was a grade 4 brain cancer then. The most any brain cancer patient at St Thomas Hospital had lived was 18 months. But Catherine survived three and a half years.

Survived is certainly the wrong word. Enjoyed might be more appropriate.

She never complained; she always took the attitude that all people get sick and, for some reason, she had been dealt a card that was an unavoidable death sentence. Just bad luck. She always knew that there was no cure, but she was determined to be positive and never wished to be regarded, nor regard herself, as a victim. This whole web site is dedicated to her. icon magazine was her idea.

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