Another very tardy update; the last few weeks have been, um… eventful.
Four weeks ago I had my first sit-down with Dr. McGraw, the radiation oncologist. There was a bit of a snafu in the scheduling, as he would’ve preferred to have seen me after my PET scan (which was done the following Thursday morning; more on that later) so he didn’t have a full game plan for treatment. He also said that he would be passing my case over to one of his partners because he was being deployed with the Air Guard and would be gone for the next three months. He did however take the time to explain things pretty well, so Yvonne & I were thankful for that. Knowing what he did of my case (two things you don’t want to hear from a doc; “I’ve been reading up on your case; it’s very interesting.” and “Wow, I’ve never seen [i]that[/i] before!”) he thought that a course of 18 daily radiation treatments over a span of three weeks ought to do the trick to completely eradicate the cancer from my jaw.
The treatments would be aimed at my jaw, and should only affect that immediate area; the side effects didn’t sound like much fun (and haven’t been) but he didn’t think it would interfere much with life & work (they haven’t, much) and should be effective. The daily thing was kind of a surprise, but he explained that doing smaller doses daily is far easier on the body than larger doses spaced further apart. I think I can accept that; I won’t enjoy it, but that pretty much goes without saying.
Following the appointment that morning I was also fitted with my Hannibal mask. They don’t call it that, but I will because that’s the first thing that came to mind when I saw it; it’s a form-fitted mask that helps to keep my head stationary during the radiation treatments, and also allows the techs to mark it up with reference points so they can be more consistent from one treatment to the next (which is better than marking me!) It’s made of a plastic mesh that starts out flat and becomes pliable when warmed up. The techs draped the warmed mesh over my face, then fitted it to a u-shaped plate that clamps to a hard plastic headrest. This isn’t mine, but looks an awful lot like it:
Since the tumor is on my lower jaw, they also want to keep my mouth from moving, so I was fitted with a mouthpiece, which is similar to a football bite-guard except it has a flat plastic piece in place of the part that would normally form fit around the lower teeth. After the initial fitting, the bite-guard was attached to the mask; the two combined, with the mask clamped onto the headrest, with me in a supine position on the table made for an extremely unpleasant confined feeling.
They did a quick CT scan of my head that first Tuesday, and in the few minutes that it took I nearly gagged on the stupid mouth guard. The bite guard obstructs my tongue’s movement, and that combined with the way the mask fits around the bottom of my chin made swallowing really difficult. And that combined with laying flat on my back on the table made for a few moments of near panic. I made it through the CT scan, and was so glad to finally be released from the thing I failed to say anything about that. Later I assumed that at some point we would take some time to get the mask & bite guard to fit better… Wrong assumption.
During our visit Dr. McGraw mentioned that he wanted to use that mask for my second PET scan in order to get more accurate results; I was still hoping that there might be some adjusting we could do with it, but when the nurse trotted that thing out on Thursday morning it was pretty clear that wasn’t happening. They got me ready and slapped that puppy over my face & told me to relax, the test would take 20 to 25 minutes. That’s when I nearly lost it.
I was to have nothing but water for six hours before the PET scan, and part of the prep involves drinking a thick sugary goop. That made for a bit of sticky gunk in the back of my throat that was hard to swallow. Add to that the bite guard in my mouth and the part of the mask wrapping under my chin and it was extremely hard to swallow. I’ve never considered myself to be claustrophobic, but I’d never been this restricted before (having my arms strapped to my sides didn’t help that either.) I knew I wouldn’t be able to make it five minutes, much less twenty-five minutes, so I grunted and kicked and did whatever I could to communicate to the nurse that it wasn’t gonna fly… She pulled the mask off and I nearly hyperventilated, so happy to be able to breathe again!
I explained the difficulty I was having, so she went to ask about adjusting the thing; she came back saying the word was ‘no’ on adjusting, but the doc relented on the mouth guard, and she pulled it off of the mask. The mask was still somewhat restrictive, what with the part that wrapped under the chin, but I somehow made it through the procedure by praying, reciting what I could of the 23rd Psalm (sure felt like the valley of the shadow of death!) and counting. The PET scan operates by making scans of small sections of the body, as if it’s a great big meat slicer (that thankfully doesn’t actually cut anything.) From the counting I determined that it took around three minutes for it to scan a section of my body; then the table I was on would move forward six inches or so, then it would scan the next section of my body. I lost track of how many times it moved, but if my one-second counts were accurate, it was about three minutes between each move.
Even with the counting and praying, there were still a few moments where I was this close to bailing out; swallowing was difficult, breathing was difficult, I was getting a kink in my neck from the plastic headrest, and having my arms & legs strapped down was just a bit too much. But I did make it through. Later on I realized another factor that made the earlier PET scan so much easier; Dr. Bleeker prescribed a sedative for me to take in preparation for the test. I think the mask would still have been a problem if I’d had the sedative on board, but I have no doubt that would’ve helped.
Later that same afternoon we met with Dr. Bleeker to go over the results… The PET scan basically measures the glucose uptake of cells in your body. To do that, a radiotracer is injected into the bloodstream; for cancer detection, the radiotracer used is FDG (fluorodeoxyglucose) tagged to glucose. Cancers absorb glucose differently from normal tissue, and the PET scan is able to detect those differences; in reading the PET scan, a radiologist reads the scan results and grades the “glow” of an area in SUV (Standardized Uptake Values). When I had my first PET scan back in April, the glow in my jaw was a 10; following chemotherapy it was 3. Considering the fact that normal or benign tissue has an SUV of 2.3, I’d say we’re heading in the right direction.
I started writing this post about three weeks ago, and am just now finishing it up. I could go on, and tell more about the radiation therapy, but I think I’ll just post this and start a fresh post on that topic. Pretty sure I can finish it in less than three weeks. 😉