Radiotherapy and Fatigue

RadioactivieWhy does radiotherapy (a.k.a. radiation therapy) make me so tired? I asked the technician. I didn’t find the actual treatment of radiotherapy (radiation) unpleasant once I’d got passed the severe discomfort of the position I had to lie in. It only took a few minutes. I was in and out of the department within about fifteen minutes each day. However I became baffled by the incredible fatigue and how quickly it set in.

In the beginning, I often chose to drive us into Johannesburg, chatting to my husband, Rob, as I negotiated the heavy traffic. When we arrived at the hospital, I would park the car in the parking bay, and together we would walk down the slight hill and across the road to the hospital, catching the lift to the sixth floor. I would walk into the treatment room with a spring in my step, greeting the two ladies cheerfully as I clambered up onto the steel table.

After the few minutes of therapy, however, I climbed off the table, got dressed, and made for the car as fast as possible. I knew that I didn’t have long before my energy faded like ice-cream in a hot oven.

Sometimes I made it, laboriously, to the car. Sometimes the slight hill proved too much for me, and I had to wait for Rob at the gate to the parking bay. And sometimes I only made it to the exit from the hospital, and I’d have to sit on the low wall outside the door, waiting for my husband to bring the car to me. On the way home I would lean my head back and use all my concentration to keep myself awake. The feeling of total exhaustion was unbelievable.

There was no way I could ever have driven myself home, a one-hour trip. I eventually brought up the subject with one of the technicians.

Why the Fatigue Sets In So Quickly: “The radioactivity actually destroys all the growing cells in the target area,” the technician explained. “Your white blood cells multiply back at a phenomenal rate, and within a few hours your blood count starts to rise again. Your red blood cells take a little longer to recover, but they also ‘bounce’ back quite quickly. The cancer cells, hopefully, never recover.”

She looked at me to make sure that I was following the lecture.

“Now when we give you your daily dose of radioactivity, we effectively kill a lot of cells. But we can’t remove the broken and dead pieces. They are immediately released into your circulatory system for your body to deal with.

“This happens within a very short space of time. By the time you reach your car, your body is waging a war against all the intruders. It is as if you have developed a massive infection. Within the space of a few hours your body starts to win the war, and build up its forces once again.”

She smiled. “But of course, along we come again. You will find that each day you seem to take a little longer to recover. Towards the end of the course of treatment, you will probably be so tired and depressed, even moody, you may even feel that you can’t go on. When that happens, cheer yourself up with the thought that this means it is nearing an end.”

As Time Progresses: I soon learned what she meant. As the time passed, I got more and more fatigued, and actually conjured a new word to describe the feeling: “wooshed”. This was a combination of the words, “bushed” and “worn out”. 

Eventually I didn’t have the strength to even drive to treatment, never mind home again. All I could think was that for me, this was the first of the treatments. I still faced two full courses of chemotherapy. However would I manage?

Fifteen Years Later: Fatigue is still a problem. How much of that is due to the chemo, and how much to the radiotherapy, I will never know. Plus of course, I am fifteen years older! I just know that I have never fully recovered my energy levels in all these years. The more people I talk to, the more I learn this is the norm.

I keep going, and I look fit and healthy. Others envy me my enthusiasm for life, and my vitality and productivity. But by afternoon I am often so tired I just want to go to sleep. And I’m not the only one! It is a common after-effect, yet for all that, I push through and rarely give in to the desire to sleep. Life is too good to waste it resting!

Over to You: Have you had radiation/radiotherapy? If so, was fatigue a problem? Help others by commenting on your experience in a few words.


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2 comments on “Radiotherapy and Fatigue

  1. I had no idea that radiotherapy could make you tired, so this was really enlightening to read. It’s sad to hear how you only get more and more tired as the treatment continues. I like hearing the words that you’d use to describe your fatigue!

    • Hi Petunia,

      You’re so right. I had NO IDEA of the fatigue. But if you know about it, you can make plans to hopefully cope with it. e.g. my neighbour is an elderly lady who recently went through radiotherapy. She didn’t like to lie down in case someone came to visit! So I made her a good looking notice to stick on her bedroom window (which faces her front door). It says, “I’m resting right now. Please come back later. Thanks so much.” That freed her up to go and sleep in the afternoons or even during the morning if she felt the need.

      Every blessing on you!

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