Summer is my favourite season. I love sunshine and heat and thunderstorms. It means patios, outdoor concerts and cooling off in my pool. I have likened my cancer treatment to the seasons. Winter was chemotherapy, spring was surgery, and now summer. Summer is radiation.
I have 25 treatments, 5 days a week for 5 weeks. Funny enough, my first one was at 5pm on the first day of summer. I have already marked the final one on my calendar and have installed a countdown app on my phone. It’s July 26th if you’re curious. I’m going to try to answer the two questions I get asked the most about radiation in this blog. Number one…why do you need radiation if you are in remission? Number two…what’s it like?
Radiation, for me at least, is an insurance policy. It destroys the cells and helps to prevent the recurrence of cancer. The pathologist checked several areas of my breast after surgery as well as the 16 lymph nodes removed. Thankfully, she didn’t find any residual cancer, but she can’t check every single cell. That’s where radiation comes in. It’s a bit like pest control. (Speaking of pests, I’ve been secretly hoping for a spider bite during radiation.)
The reason there are so many rounds is so that the treatment is spread out in smaller doses to make it easier on the body. It’s a bit scary. As humans, we try to avoid this kind of thing on the whole. There’s a reason pregnant women don’t get x-rays at the dentist. One of my radiation therapists told me “It’s just like an x-ray but a million times stronger”. Oh good. The walls in radiation are about 12 inches thick. They don’t want an innocent bystander to be affected by those rays. I’d put a winky-face emoji here but that’s not very professional.
Rest assured, radiation is not nearly as hard as chemotherapy or a bilateral mastectomy. I am saying this early, before any side effects have had time to kick in, but I’m still pretty confident. After three rounds, I can tell you that it’s pretty easy so far. I have been given a schedule with every appointment listed. They are at different times during the day so I have to pay attention and plan my life accordingly. I scan a bar code on my schedule when I walk in, change into one of those lovely hospital gowns and wait to be called. The positive side to radiation is there is no real waiting. It’s not like seeing an oncologist or getting a chemo infusion. They are on time almost every time. I know, hard to believe.
The first appointment takes the most time as they have to take a bunch of x rays beforehand and make sure you are lined up precisely on the table. This is not like an MRI , so if you have claustrophobia, you don’t have to worry. There are two radiation therapists in the room calling out coordinates and double checking the computer in the room. There are four tiny tattoos on my body that look like freckles. The lasers are lined up with the tattoos so that they know exactly where to direct the radiation. It’s a science and far more complicated than what I will offer you here. Google is pretty good if you want to know more.
When it’s time for the actual radiation, the therapists naturally leave the room. It’s just me and the big machine. The whole thing takes about 10 minutes and doesn’t hurt in the slightest. My biggest responsibility is lying completely still. They try to make the final position as comfortable as possible so that it’s not difficult to stay that way. If you have neck or back issues, it might be a bit tough. I lie with my right arm resting above my head on a metal “arm holder”. Thankfully I can do this now. It took about three weeks post surgery to lift my arm without pain. The machine moves around me like a giant round camera lens zapping the areas it needs to. I don’t feel a thing. Soft music from a local radio station plays over a speaker in the room. I found it ironic that, on the first day of summer, I was lying on a radiation table listening to “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.” I’m in and out in about a half hour. The most time is spent lining me up the exact same way every time.
This final treatment does not come without its own set of side effects. The top two are fatigue and a rash. Neither will kick in immediately from what I’m told. It may take a week or two to start feeling it. The rash looks like a bad sunburn and can be irritating. I have to take care of my skin by applying a glaxal based cream on it 3-4 times a day. I also have to stay out of the sun and out of the pool. So there goes July. I’ll have to be content to sit under an umbrella for the time being and enjoy our brief summer that way.
I want to point out that radiation won’t be the same for all cancers. Mine is much more surface so it’s not quite as harsh. I will likely not escape the “sunburn” since my skin is being directly targeted. During a part of my radiation, a thick pad is placed on my chest called a bolus. This gives the skin a higher dose. Unfortunately my breast cancer had started to creep into my skin before I was diagnosed.
Summer is here and I’m feeling good with 3 treatments down and 22 to go. I get weekends off so I’ll try to make the most of mine…away from the sun. Cheers!