Cancer care during head and neck radiation therapy

IMRT is short for Intensity Modulated Radiation Therapy. The intensity of the radiation in IMRT can be changed during treatment to spare more adjoining normal tissue than is spared during conventional radiation. Subsequently, an increased dose of radiation can be delivered to the tumor using IMRT. IMRT is a type of conformal radiation, which shapes radiation beams to closely approximate the shape of the tumor.

Treatment plan:

30 sessions of radiation (IMRT) to the jaw/neck area, M-F for 6 weeks.

Preparation before radiation treatment:

1) The mask:

A mask of my head was made so that my head would be in the same position for treatment each time and it also prevents any movement during treatment.  This mask is made of a special material that can be molded to your face when it's warmed, but then solidifies when it cools.  It's a mesh, so you can still see and breathe through it.

2) Tattoos:

It's not as bad as it sounds.  Three dots were tatooed along my shoulder for positioning purposes.  Each tattoo is about the size of a freckle.

3) Dentist:

  • Radiation treatment, as well as chemotherapy, makes one very prone to cavities because of decreased saliva due to salivary gland damage.  I went to a dentist before radiation treatment started to get fluoride treatment as well as upper and lower mouthguards for daily fluoride gel treatments at home.
  • The same mouthguards are also good to have during radiation, to separate the cheek from the teeth. This minimizes any adverse effect from material on your teeth during radiation treatment.

During radiation treatment session:

1) Mouthguards:

See above.  Remember to bring it to the appointment when they make your mask, and to every radiation session.  The fine positioning of the radiation treatment will require your mouthguard to be in place.  They won't give you your radiation treatment unless you wear your mouthguard!

2) Dental rolls:

These will help minimize radiation side-effects in areas that don't need to be exposed to radiation.  The dental rolls were a life-saver in moving my tongue away from the area of concentrated radiation.  I put 3 between my tongue and teeth, and another 2 between my teeth and cheek. Be sure to ask your doctor about this.

3) What does it feel like?

I didn't feel any heat or pain during radiation.  There's a loud beep when the radiation is being administered. 

After radiation treatment session:

1) Water:

I tried to drink 2 cups of water after immediately each radiation session. A teaspoon of cold aloe vera also helped.  Towards the end of treatment though, it became hard to drink water.

2) Radiation care lotion:

The radiation oncologist will advise which lotions to use.  Over the course of radiation treatment, my radiation oncologist recommended various lotions, based on the condition of my skin/radiation burn. Make sure to apply these lotions consistently. They will save you from future complications.