PUBLISHED ON: 4 July 2019

When Clare found out she needed radiotherapy, she tried to prepare herself as much as possible. She shares her top tips for coping with radiotherapy.

Clare and her partner

I thought it was nothing

I first felt a lump on my breast in January 2019. I’ve always had lots of cysts and sore breasts before my period, so I ignored it.

However, my right breast felt different to normal, so I decided to go and see my GP.

I went to the hospital to have some tests. When the consultant told me that I had breast cancer, I sat in shock in the quiet room. I didn’t expect it at all. I had gone on my own, thinking it would be nothing.

There were so many unanswered questions

I had to tell my partner John over the phone.

That evening when I got home, we talked a lot about the different scenarios. I knew that I couldn’t change my situation, so how were we going to deal with it? That’s when I decided to call my diagnosis ‘Project Cancer’. I could try to map out my treatment and face it head on.

That didn’t mean I wasn’t afraid of what was coming, but I didn’t want to waste my energy on being negative and focusing on what I couldn’t control.

I was told that the cancer hadn’t spread to my lymph nodes, but my surgeon was going to remove some to check during my lumpectomy and I would need radiotherapy.

Clare’s top tips for coping with radiotherapy

I started radiotherapy on 15 April. Despite all my planning, I found radiotherapy the most challenging of my treatments.

Here are some tips that helped me through.

1. Accept that you cannot plan

Although I called my diagnosis ‘Project Cancer’, breast cancer didn’t necessarily follow the milestones I had planned, despite me thinking that I had all of the dates and tasks mapped out.

Early on my breast care team encouraged me to take things one step at time. While there is an end date in relation to treatment, you won’t get a full understanding of when this might be until after your first couple of appointments. It’s good to keep that perspective.

2. Allow yourself to feel emotions

I set out to face my diagnosis with a positive attitude. That doesn’t mean I didn’t cry or feel angry, but I let those moments be short and I talked about how I felt.

One day during the first week of my radiotherapy, I saw a young woman ring the bell to signal the end of her treatment.

I didn’t know her, but I burst into tears. It was the first time I had really cried since the day I was diagnosed. Although it was draining, I felt better for it.

3. Know that everyone reacts differently

Before I started radiotherapy, I talked to others who had gone through treatment, read the Breast Cancer Care website and information booklets and checked the BECCA app.

Despite this, I was still unprepared for the extent I would experience side effects. I had pain in my ribs, my breast swelled and my skin experienced sunburn. I didn’t realise that radiotherapy could continue to affect my body after treatment had ended.

After speaking to the other women who were going through radiotherapy with me, I learnt that everyone reacts differently to treatment. Research plays a small part in feeling prepared for what you are about to face.

4. Listen to your body

I made the decision to carry on working throughout my treatment, although I was ignorant about how the side effects of radiotherapy would affect me.

I had to accept that I had to slow down, especially as the fatigue in the afternoons was quite debilitating. I learnt to listen to my body and to stop and rest when I was tired. I was able to adapt my ways of working to suit my needs.

5. Create a coping kit

I made up a coping kit to help me through my treatment. It included E45 cream and aloe vera gel out of the fridge that I applied regularly. I also had painkillers prescribed from my GP.

My radiotherapy team gave me nipple covers which were a godsend. I didn’t wear underwire bras, instead I wore a vest which helped lessen irritation. They also advised me about skin care during and after treatment.

6. Keep moving

I tried to keep exercising. Daily walks helped me keep on top of the fatigue. I did try and go to the gym several times, but it made me feel worse! For me, the light exercise of my walks were enough.  

You can’t control everything

I rang my end of treatment bell on 15 May with tears of joy. My treatment reinforced what an amazing and supportive network I have around me. It’s also proven to me the strength and resilience that I have.

I’ve learnt that you can’t control everything. Everyone will deal with their treatment differently, but it’s important to stay true to yourself. Cancer can change things physically and mentally but try not to let it change who you are as a person. 

If you're struggling with treatment, our Someone Like Me service can put you in touch with someone who understands.

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