In late July, I finished 5 weeks of radiation. From my first moments with the radiation machine, I’ve been reminded of 2001 A Space Odyssey.
You enter a darkened room, and lay down on a narrow table. The technicians shift you around a bit, using lights from the machine and my tattoos to make sure that I was correctly positioned. They placed a thin (1/2 inch thick) mat of a gelatinous consistency over my chest. Then the technicians would leave the room and it was just me and the machine.
A big swinging arm hovers over you. You are looking right into the lens of the machine. There is an L shaped aperture, as well as thin “fingers” of metal on each side of the of the opening that can be configured into specific shapes for the radiation. It looks kind of like this.
There is lots of clicking and chugging as the machine positions itself, the aperture is set, and then the actual radiation bursts start. I had 12 bursts over 4 different positions: 5 bursts at the 11 o’clock position, 5 more at 4 o’clock, 1 short one at 1 o’clock, and the last, and longest burst at 12 o’clock. The bursts were between 1 and 16 seconds. There were 40 fingers on each side of the machine to create some very interesting shapes to let the radiation through. From start to finish it was about 4 and a half minutes. I spent a lot of boring time under that machine. I counted a lot!
All in all, it was a piece of cake. I was able to park in a dedicated parking lot right next to the radiation center. Check in was very quick, then into the locker room to change into a gown and lock up my things. Within a very few minutes I would be brought into the treatment room. I had two main teams of technicians I worked with, all of whom were very nice and professional. Nothing hurt, and other than a bit of discomfort from laying still with my arms over my head for 5 minutes in a very cool room, it was very easy. I saw my doctor once a week, but everything was fine and we never really had much to talk about, although I did ask him why I had the pad of gelatinous stuff over me. He told me that it’s called a bolus and its purpose was to mimic flesh, so that he could position the beam much closer to the surface. On my last day, they rang a cowbell in celebration and presented me with a certificate of achievement.
But they do warn you that the effects of the radiation can continue for 10–14 days. And that you may have some skin breakdown. And they were right. By day 7, my skin was bright red and the first layer was blistering and peeling off. Over the following week, I lost two more layers of skin. It was like the worst sunburn ever, multiplied by 5. I bought some oversized t-shirts and lived in them for 2 weeks. I had a regimen of soaks and lotions and gauze to try to deal with the burns, but it was just a case of getting through it. Towards the end, my chest got quite itchy, but it was underneath an area where the nerves had been cut and I couldn’t feel anything if I scratched the area, which was a bit difficult to deal with. Overall, the aftermath did end up being quite painful, but it passed quickly and I’m completely healed now.
And so, I’m now done with treatment. I will begin a period of scans every 3 months for the next 2 years. My first will be on September 12th – I had to wait 6 weeks from the end of radiation so that the internal damage would heal and not show up as a problem. I saw my oncologist a few weeks ago, and it was pointed out that I was overdue for a mammogram. When I asked Dr S about it, she basically said that I had two choices. If I was in a good place mentally, and ready to jump back into treatment if something was found, then I should have one done now. But if I needed a little break, I could wait. After thinking about it, I decided to wait until after my vacation to do it. Dr S was delighted to hear that I was getting away on vacation and thought that postponing it was a good call.
Which brings me to the great news about my vacation. I am flying to the midwest for 11 days, and will spend time in Toledo, Ohio with my dear friend Deb, then on to Chicago to see my eldest son. I am really looking forward to it! I am picking up my compression sleeve today to help with the lymphedema, so my arm shouldn’t swell during the flights. My hosts both know that I still have a lot of neuropathy and walking is a bit difficult for me, so they’ve planned low-key activities. I’m hoping that the heat of their summer is just about over, and that it won’t be too hot, but if it is, I’ll deal with it.
Thanks to all of you for your continued messages and support. I am hoping that this last round of treatment has done the trick. I’ll keep you posted.