Cancer & Me 35 Years On – vol 4 – Brachytherapy – (the Radium Needle Implant)

"Cancer and me 35 years on Vol 4 - Brachytherapy" written in white on a photograph of a field at sunset

Today in our Community News blog Willo is back with the fourth instalment of her guest blog series called ‘Cancer & me 35 years on’. In this series, Willo, known on the Community as patsyann85, tells us about her experience of being diagnosed with Anal cancer in 1986 while living in Zambia. We will be sharing more of Willo’s writing and incredible artwork throughout the next few months in the Community News. If you missed Vol 3 – The journey home, you can click here to catch up.

My younger son spent as much of his Easter holidays with me as was possible and we travelled far and wide together, spending several days in London with friends who drove us all around the sights - and we also saw Les Miserables from the cheapest seats up in the gods, looking down on the heads of the company, but nevertheless enjoying it (if that is the right word for we felt quite exhausted afterwards). We went up to Cumbria, to stay with another friend, visited Kielder Water, the Beamish Museum and attended a fund raising event hosted by Jonjo O’Neill, the jockey and trainer, himself a cancer survivor.

'The star of the show was Aldaniti the famous racehorse who had won the 1981 grand national'

The star of the show was Aldaniti the famous racehorse who had won the 1981 Grand National, ridden by Bob Champion, who had recovered from testicular cancer and the horse had even been nursed back from serious injuries. Bob’s story was made into the film Champions, starring John Hurt.

  Photograph of Willo and a horse

I was admitted to Christie Hospital (and Holt Radium Institute, as it was then) in April 1986. Dorothea came over to my folks to collect me the previous evening and I stayed the night with them. Not long after I got to Christies other ex-Zambian friends, Connie and Jack, came over from Chester to visit.

  Photo of a Willo's Hospital room, Willo sits on her bed surrounded by 3 friends on chairs

I was introduced to the consultant in radiotherapy, Dr J and with him I had an immediate rapport. I was quick to notice a segment of one of his eyes was a different colour and I found it fascinating – even though I had seen this before on a friend at school. By some amazing stroke of luck, he had actually done three years at the University Teaching Hospital, in Zambia’s capital, Lusaka, so we already had a mutual connection. I felt safe with him and the staff.

'I felt safe with him and the staff.'

Dr J examined me and explained I would be undergoing a series of tests, including rectal washes over a few days. I was to be given a radium needle implant, well, caesium to be precise. He showed me examples and I thought the word “needle” to be rather a misnomer, as the needles with their applicators resembled terrifyingly large nails! So, I would be moved to a bed in the corner, which had the radiation sign above it, to remind people to keep their distance.

Ten needles would be surgically implanted around my anus, stitched into position and to be left in situ for nearly a week, with me remaining immobile for all that time and visitors only allowed for one hour and could come no closer that the foot of the bed. I’m sure the word “brachytherapy” wasn’t given to me at the time, but it is so hard to take everything in, that it may not have registered.

'I'm sure the word "Brachytherapy" wasn't given to me at the time but it is so hard to take everything in, that it may not have registered' 

I would be on a special diet with no roughage and given medication to make me constipated and I would be catheterised. Each morning the nurses would bring me a bowl of water to wash in, bring me food and remove the tray after I had eaten. They would also bring a controlled drug to fight against infection, which needed two of them to sign for and administer. The needles would have silk threads attached to them, which would be the only visible sign after insertion and these would be taped to my legs and counted regularly just to make sure they remained in position. There would be no other contact from the nurses and I was to lie as still as possible.

Later that day I made a point of wandering down to the children’s ward for I knew that would be the leveller and help me get things into perspective. It certainly did that; children of all ages, bald headed, sunken pale faces, huge eyes, hooked up to all kinds of tubes or machinery – and great big smiles. The tears rolled down my face as I made my way back to Ward 1.

'The tears rolled down my face as I made my way back to ward 1'

The procedure went ahead as planned and the nurses tried to make me as comfortable as possible. Visitors came and went (Dorothea or Pete most days) and a friend brought my parents in to see me, but I just couldn’t bear the pained expressions on their faces. It was really hard to cheer them up, as by this time the pain was becoming intense, as I became quite badly burnt - and when I moved the needles would criss-cross next to each other. I was told I need not suffer, as I could ask for pain relief at any time and not to worry about becoming addicted, as they would wean me off the drug gradually. I chose not to have any morphine, but what a pleasant surprise to find the patients were offered a tot of brandy or sherry from the trolley, provided by the Friends of Christies. I looked forward to that treat every afternoon!

  Photograph of Willo, sat up and smiling in a hospital bed

We want to thank Willo for kindly sharing her writing and beautiful artwork with us. We will be bringing you the next volume of this series in our Community news blog soon. The Community is a place where anyone who has been affected by cancer can talk openly with others who may have been in a similar situation. If you have been affected by Anal cancer, our ‘Anal cancer’ discussion group is a place where you can speak to others for support.