Radiation is in the rearview mirror, and while it was the lesser of the options I faced, I am grateful. I’m also thrilled I received four weeks instead of the six weeks my doctor originally forecast.
If you ever saw the movie, “Groundhog Day,” it would give you a good idea of what the month of January (and part of February) felt like. The radiation was every day, and each day became a repeat of the day before it—rise, dress, drive to radiation, return home, rest, repeat. What kept me cheerful every day was the knowledge that the rogue cancer cells that may have escaped during the biopsy or surgery were targeted by the skilled team. If they existed, the radiation destroyed them.
A month isn’t a long time when you are reflecting on it, but it was long enough to form bonds with the people that treated you. I found them engaging, skilled, and eager to help. They greeted me with a friendly “Good morning. May I have your name and your birthdate?” I’d give it to them, pushing back the reminder that I’m not as young as I once was, and we’d laugh and tally up how many more there were to go, while they adjusted me on the table. Once you are there, alone with your thoughts, they leave, and the machine starts humming. Instructions come over the speaker, “take a deep breath and hold it.” After what seems like forever, you get, “okay, you can breathe now.”
They ask patients to inhale this deep breath because it gives them a clearer shot at the breasts without hitting the heart and lungs. Patients receiving radiation for breast cancer used to have a fairly good chance of getting heart and lung damage—something else to face later in life. But since they started this process (about five years ago, I was told) the chance of heart damage dropped to two percent. Those are much better odds. In case you wonder, like I did, what would happen if you accidentally breathed during the dose—the machine stops automatically. No—I didn’t do it to check. It did, however, make me feel better to know. It seems I had many, many questions. I would think about them while I lay on the table, trying to occupy my mind and ignore the machine that surrounded me.
Here are some pictures. The first is the machine that delivers the radiation. I took the picture before I left the table that final day. (You can see me taking the snapshot in the reflection.) If I dared open my eyes during the procedure, this is what I would have seen. I did not open my eyes.
The second picture is of the entire machine. It was HUGE, with panels on the left and right that helped position, according to the specifications made when I went that first day. It also took pictures during the procedures when they were requested by the treating radiation oncologist.
The third picture shows the long hallway (or so it seemed when thinking about what was on the other side) that I walked down to get to the equipment. There was an eight-inch (maybe thicker) lead door that opens to the protected area.
If you look up radiation treatments, you see a list of formidable side effects. Some were more dreadful than the others. I noticed nothing the first week. But it was the end of the second week when things caught up to me. While I was warned that side effects to the skin include those similar to a sunburn, my skin stayed pretty good throughout most of the treatment. (I could, however, feel pain inside the breast.) I did treat my skin three times a day, using Aquafor, Eucerin, and Tamanu oil—an oil recommended by a good friend’s esthetician. It spurs new collagen growth and is an anti-inflammatory. I used it on my incisions and the scars are nearly gone. Of course, I checked with my radiation oncologist before I added the oil, and he supported the use of all three, although the oil was new to him. [The technician team that helped me were impressed my skin had not burned throughout radiation.]
What I did get was a radiation rash, which thankfully waited until the last day to appear. It formed where the radiation enters—towards the center of my chest, angling at the breast.
After the third week, exhaustion showed itself. But the most surprising side effect happened on the last day of my treatment. Let’s just call it “the day of the brain fog.” Yes… it happened. As backdrop, I had a follow-up visit for a foot injury (I had rolled my foot off the edge of a sidewalk while walking for exercise and broke a small bone.) It was early December when I injured it, and I had to wear a boot for a month. However, now I was done with the boot and the bone was healed. I had a follow-up visit with the podiatrist following my last radiation treatment.
As the nurse and I entered the examining room, she asked me why I was there. It was a simple question, but I couldn’t remember. My blank stare must have spoken volumes! (And remember, there were no cues… the boot was gone.) So, she asked me to give my name and address. Duh! I had not forgotten that. Happy that she had the right patient, she went on and asked me again why I was there. I knew it had something to do with my feet because the sign on the door said podiatrist! And my calendar prompted me with the appointment.
Using every tool at my disposal, I glanced at the computer behind her and nodded. “Well, I’m sure that will tell us why I’m here.” (I thought that was a suitable response.)
She quickly replied, “but I think you should tell me.”
Dang it! Now, I was getting frustrated. I couldn’t imagine putting down an appointment I didn’t need, so I replied, “It could be fun to know if we are both thinking the same thing. I'll bet it’s listed on the computer there.”
“Oh yes! I should turn that on,” she said. They had just returned from lunch.
While she did that, I figured it might be prudent to expose my foot, so I began pulling off my shoe.
She logged in and looked at me, puzzled. “Are you here for your right foot?”
I sat there for a moment. “Okay,” I said. “I cannot remember. I’ve almost finished radiation for breast cancer and I think I have what some have called cancer brain.”
“That’s a real thing. My wife had it,” the doctor said, laughing as he walked in behind her.
She looked at the computer once more. “It was your left foot—a toe…”
“Thank goodness! I remember now.” My mind cleared. I remembered the horrible boot I wore for a month, the pain that seemed an 8 on a scale of 1-10, and the relief that I could get out of the boot the day before radiation started.
It’s been over a week since my radiation, and my mind and my body feel much better. The cancer is gone for now, thanks to the surgery and the radiation, but I’m not finished with the treatment. For my version of breast cancer (there are so many types), I have to undergo hormone treatment, which involves taking medication to stop the formation of the hormones that caused the cancer. The treatment lasts for five to ten years.
But that starts in a few weeks. For today, I’m reveling in feeling like myself again!