I started radiation this week. So far, easy peasy and I’m not glowing or green. Over the next 6 ½ weeks I’ll go in Monday through Friday to get zapped— a total of 33 times.
Here’s what radiation is like:
Step 1: Check up
Two weeks after my mastectomy and reconstruction, Dr. R, my radiation oncologist, checked if my skin was healing well (so that they could torture it all over again) and if I had enough range of motion in my T. Rex-like arms to position them over my head while they zap me. I was good to go.
Step 2: Education & Simulation
Ten days later it was time to get schooled in radiation and prepare a treatment plan. The nurse walked through the most common (and luckily few) side effects. Over time the treated skin may develop what looks like a sun burn which can be alleviated with really expensive lotion applied three times a day. Speaking of skin, she advised me not to wear deodorant so apologies if I smell a bit ripe.
In addition to stinky, sunburnt skin, I might become mildly fatigued as the weeks go by because my body will be working extra to recover from the radiation. I'll need plenty of rest and protein. This sounds like a walk in the park compared to everything else.
Next was a CT scan. Laying down on a table with my arms above my head, Dr. R placed small stickers with wires in them on my chest to map out the area to treat with radiation.
After the CT scan was done, they gave me a small permanent “dot” tattoo on each side of my chest. The tattoos will help them place me in the same position each time I have radiation. I’ve always wanted to get a tattoo but that wasn’t what I had in mind.
Step 3: Dry-Run
A week later I was back at the doctor’s office for a dry-run to test the treatment plan but without the radiation. I imagined sitting in a white recliner chair while some futuristic/James Bond/laser gun-like machine quietly zapped me. Uh, no. The radiation machine looks like a ginormous Kitchen Aid mixer.
There’s 2 radiation machines and 6 therapists who work with around 40 people a day. Outside the rooms are stations lined with monitors for the therapists to control the machines.
Each time I go in for radiation, I'll use a card to check in on the computer which lets the therapists know I'm there. Once they're ready, I go to a changing room, undress from the waist up and put on a gown. A therapist asks me if I want a warm blanket (of course!) and escorts me into a large radiation room. Country music is playing and another therapist asks me to confirm my name and birthdate on screens hanging from the ceiling.
Then I lay down on the machine table. I slide the robe off my chest and they cover my right side with the blanket. My legs are propped up with a wedge underneath my knees and my feet are bound with a rubberband so I won’t move. My head is placed on what feels like a cylinder and I lay my arms over my head, holding on to a small handle. The therapists tug the sheet underneath me to get me perfectly aligned. Don’t move!
The table is raised up to almost eye level and it slides back so my torso is a few feet under the “mixer” head of the machine. The underside of the mixer reminds me of the top of an old overhead projector table. It’s round with a square glass plate. Below the plate are 2 long rows of metal teeth that slide back and forth to form shapes, like the aperture of a camera. At each session, the machine will do 4 intervals, targeting specific areas of the lymph nodes in my left armpit and my left breast. When the machine is active, the therapists leave the room.
When the machine starts, the mixer head rotates around me in a circle to its first position and it projects a uniquely shaped light on my chest. Since this was a dry-run, a therapist came in at each interval and with a pen, marked the highlighted area on my chest. Once the four intervals were complete, my left side looked like a very confusing map. Luckily the body art was only for the dry-run. The last step was adding one more dot tattoo to the front of my chest. Sarcastic yay!
Step 4: Radiation time
A couple days later I went in for the real deal. The process was similar to the dry-run except this time I could hear the machine buzz when it zapped me with radiation. It doesn’t hurt.
Everything is very efficient so I’m in and out in under 10 minutes. That somewhat helps make up for the inconvenience of driving to the hospital daily. I wonder if I’ll feel differently after a couple weeks of this.
All of my appointments are around the same time in the afternoon each day. On Tuesdays I meet with Dr. R and the nurse after my dose to check my skin and see how I’m doing. Only 30 more radiation doses to go!
How I’m doing
Each week I’m feeling more normal. With time and exercise I plan to be healthier and stronger than I’ve ever been.
The docs say my foobs are recovering well. I have a lot more range of motion and can pick up things, including my cute little boy. I can finally sleep on my side without discomfort. Hallelujah! I still feel like I’m wearing a permanent iron bra but I know it will get better, especially when I get the implants— which will be a couple months after I heal from radiation.
I’m starting to think about my life after cancer. Lots to think about but I’m feeling very optimistic about what lies ahead. A good blog topic for another time.