The weekly Minchin. And what radiation therapy does.

How radiation therapy works.

Before you read on, you should probably have a look at “About”, “Checklist for The Cancer Club” and “A prescription of Tim Minchin”.

This week’s “Weekly Minchin” is the video sequence on “Morality, miracles, Tony the fish”, which you can find on his DVD “So fucking rock”. Enjoy! There Tim talks about how enjoying sciency things instead of magicky ones doesn’t mean to turn into a cynic.

Radiation therapy isn’t one of the magicky things but definitely falls under the category “sciency”. Even though you cannot see and feel the radiation, believe it or not, it’s there. But how does it work?

Our bodies are made up of trillions of cells. Inside every single cell, each one of which is quite small,  there is an even smaller structure called nucleus. And inside the nucleus there are genetic building blocks called DNA. Every day quite a few new cells have to be built because the old ones have been used up or damaged or done a good job but have grown old. A good example are cells that line the inside of our digestive system, which are simply rubbed off by the passage of our food. Or certain blood cells. Other cells in our body grow very old though, for example our brain cells that can get as old as we get.

When new cells are made, they need a nucleus each. And in the nucleus they need the building blocks called DNA. New DNA is made by copying the DNA of another cell. As the DNA is bloody long, it is very probable that the copy contains slight changes, meaning that it is not an exact copy. A change in the genetic information is called mutation. Many of the mutations that happen accidentally every day are discovered by molecules that check the new DNA building blocks for copying mistakes. These substances are called repair enzymes. It is good we have them because some of the mistakes could cause severe problems.

So far so good. But what does all this have to do with radiation therapy? Well, to cut a long story short: cancer cells cannot repair their DNA like other cells. At least they are not as good at it. So it would be quite a smart idea to damage the DNA of cancer cells. The good news are: accidental copying mistakes are not the only way to cause mutations. There are actually chemical substances and physical processes that have the power to mutate DNA building blocks or to simply damage DNA. Amongst these are UV-light, radioactivity, certain substances AND the radiation that is used in radiation therapy.

The cooperation of several scientists, such as radiation doctors, physicians, technicians and the like ensure that when YOU are given radiation therapy, the used radiation will destroy the stupid motherfucking cancer DNA. And as the cancer cells don’t have the necessary repair enzymes, the only thing they can do is to say “Hasta la non vista, baby”!The team of experts can ensure this by taking 3-dimensional pictures of that part of your body that has to be treated during radiation therapy BEFORE radiation begins.  They make very complex calculations based on these picture and this way can help avoid radiating YOUR good old body cells. But if a body cell and its DNA comes in contact with the radiation it has all the necessary enzymes to repair the damage. Hurrah!!!

Of course my despription cannot replace a proper conversation with YOUR doctor. But I have made the experience that some scientists find it difficult to express complex processes in a way that non-scientists can understand them. AND on top of this they HAVE TO inform you about all the possible side effects, even though some of these may have a probability of under 1%. But they may scare you shitless with their seemingly endless list of what MIGHT happen. If I were you, I wouldn’t  want to be scared shitless, so I’d ask MY radiation doctor if s/he still recommended the radiation therapy to me AFTER s/he had informed me about the risks. And if s/he said “yes”, I would ask her if s/he would recommend this treatment to her husband and her kids, and if s/he said “yes”, I would go for it. So there.

I didn’t think twice when I was offered radiation therapy. And I didn’t ask friends or family what they thought I should do. I asked the experts!!! They had all the knowledge I needed, and when they said it was a useful treatment, I trusted them. Yes. That’s what I did. But I am NOT an expert, I am just a patient patient.

Ah, and Tim Minchin. Usually the radiation sessions are quite short, at least mine took only a few minutes each. But you have to lie absolutely still, which some people find uncomfortable or even discomforting. A good pastime could be a Tim Minchin song that you could sing in your head if you are very excited. This way time will pass so quickly that you will be out of radiation before you can say “Tim Minchin is fucking hilarious!”

Yours, radiantly,

Maid Manu.


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