The Rigors of Radiation


Meet Randy Chalfant- husband of nearly four decades, father of two, and cancer survivor. Randy is a metastatic colorectal cancer survivor and is passionate about sharing his insight into what it means spiritually, emotionally and practically to be diagnosed with cancer. If you are facing the rigors of radiation and need support, please contact LIVESTRONG Cancer Navigation Services online or by phone at 1-855-220-7777. We can help!

I was not prepared for the rigors of radiation. It deceived me a bit. Of course none of the medical types really know what your experience is going to be. They neither want to under nor over sell you, which makes sense; they really can’t predict how your experience will be.

They gave me some vague ideas, along with a document I had to sign that had a long list of things that can go wrong, which alone should be enough to want to skip the whole thing. But you know how lawyer speak is. When I listen to the myriad drugs that are advertised on television, with all of the caveats, who would want to take any of them? So I had a bit of hesitation but no big concerns. I also read accounts on both sides of the fence. For some it was a “cake-walk,” for others a problem.

Here is what I experienced. First, my medical team thought they were doing their very best by having me take radiation and chemo at the same time. Chemo is great at creating pain and causing suffering all by itself. They knew that radiation created many of the same symptoms, but because the chemo component for this plan was a small part of what I normally took, just 5-FU, they thought I would tolerate it well, and it would also enhance the radiation. Insofar as my tolerance for this – no way! I didn’t have a chance to get over the previous round of six full-fury chemo treatments. So I started off sick from chemo and it just got worse from there. Except for one new element – PAIN, in big doses.

But I can’t back out. The big prize is that radiation is often used as a curative treatment, and in particular, it could cure the rectal cancer and stop the on and off cycles I have been going through for 2.7 years. While it is still in my lungs, it doesn’t seem to be doing much. That’s what changed the doctors’ mind and lead them to start radiation. They initially thought the lung cancer would kill me before the rectal cancer became a problem, so they treated me with chemo to attack all the cancer that was freely running around my body as well as the specific sites. But lung cancer didn’t kill me and it hasn’t shown up any place else, so they decided to do something more aggressive about the rectal cancer.

Radiation therapy uses high-energy radiation to kill cancer cells by damaging it’s DNA. It will also kill normal cells. For me, it is causing enough damage to cause bleeding, and a brutally painfull sensitive tumor site. The idea is, as your body repairs what is damaged, normal cells grow back.

This treatment has created two difficult mental challenges, the first is just mustering the motivation to go in and take the radiation, and the other is going to the bathroom and suffering the pain. Both have to be done, mentally I want to retract and do neither. It is difficult to go do what you dread.

However, my big hope is that I can hang around long enough to have a cure show up. There are some remarkable things that have been happening.

While chemo and radiation are treatments that shut-off a person’s immune systems, for years, researchers have been trying to figure out a way to kill cancer cells by using a patient’s immune system. In August of 2011 the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine claimed a victory in that effort.

Doctors removed a billion T-cells from a 65-year-old man – a type of white blood cell that fights viruses and tumors, and gave them new genes that would program the cells to attack his cancer, which was leukemia. The altered cells were infused back into his veins.

At first, nothing happened. But after 10 days, all hell broke loose in his hospital room. He began shaking with chills and his temperature shot up. His blood pressure fell like a rock. He was so ill that doctors moved him into intensive care and warned that he might die. His family gathered at the hospital, fearing the worst. A few weeks later, the fevers were gone, and so was the leukemia. There was no trace of it anywhere.

They said that this form of treatment is like giving a scent to a bloodhound. The T-cells had been given the scent of the leukemia cells and they go out and hunt them down. The hope is to give T-cells the scent of colon cancer, breast cancer, lung cancer and train them go out and kill all kinds of cancers. While it is dangerous, and only being done in Universities, it is nevertheless a breakthrough. By the way, they have tried it on colorectal cancer patients as well, one of them died. This treatment can create what is known as a cytokine storm.

Whenever a disease is present in a body, part of the response of a body to mount a defense, is triggered by effected cells that secrete a substance called a “Cytokine”. Cytokines are small cell-signaling protein molecules that are secreted by numerous cells and are a category of signaling molecules used extensively in intercellular communication. The term “cytokine” has been used to refer to the immunomodulating agents, such as interleukins and interferons. Cytokines enhance cellular immune responses, which favor antibody responses.

Cytokine storms were the main cause of death in the 1918 “Spanish Flu” pandemic. Cytokine storm deaths are weighted more heavily towards people with healthy immune systems, due to its ability to produce stronger immune responses, like increasing cytokine levels.

For now I am trapped. I have four more to go, I give serious thought to not doing them, yet I have to. This is the most difficult mental challenge of my life. I have to do something I really don’t want to do. I don’t know how I will get it done; I just know that I will – because I have to. If I don’t do this, the amount of living I have left will be cut short. I doubt that there are many decisions that are more difficult, with larger consequences.

Welcome to cancer, where decisions aren’t easy, and stakes are huge. Just remember, you can do it alone, or you can enlist the people that are there to help you.

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