womenTALK: Blog

Monday, Aug 02nd 2010

The Reality of Radiation

by Marilyn B.

Read Marilyn's story and track her journey…

Radiation started on Monday with a "verification." I never realized it was such a complicated process. Based on the size and location of the removed tumor, I will receive four zaps of radiation. Each one is focused on a different area of the right breast/chest area, including the remaining lymph nodes under my arm and the lymph nodes under my right clavicle, which would be the next pathway for any cancer to spread to the rest of my body. The trick is in the angles—to give my breast/lymph nodes maximum exposure without touching the lung.

Over the past few weeks, the radiation oncologist and tech created a "model" for my body consisting of the final dosage, specific machine settings for placement and "blocks," which are these physical templates that go over the machine to guide the radiation to a specific spot. To verify that the model is correct, I had to lie still for over an hour, with my right arm cradled over my head and my breast exposed, as a whole team of technicians got me in place—three men and one woman. Each of them had a go at drawing something on some part of my breast as they went through their calculations. I swear I've never had so many people ogling my breast at one time since … well that's a different story!

Once everything was confirmed, I got my permanent tattoos. They are six tiny little indigo blue dots. Only one is visible with my clothes on, but it really looks like a freckle. Alas, no fire-breathing dragons.

Tuesday started the real deal. It is very efficient. I sign in, they call me over the loud speaker, I go back and put on a gown, get called in, get settled on the machine, whip out my breast and then the four techs position me. For each "zap," there are about 10 to 15 precise settings to get me in the right position, using laser beams lined up with my tattoos to confirm the positioning. Each zap take 15 to 30 seconds, each positioning takes three to four minutes. It takes about 25 minutes from the time I walk in to the time I'm back in the car.

It's a much different process and feel from chemo. With chemo, it was about blood counts, temperature, the port, etc. And, of course, the debilitating side effects. It was much more serious and somber. It was also systemic, affecting the whole body, somewhat removed from the actual breast. With radiation it is all about the breast. With chemo, the fight was to save my life by killing cancer cells that could metastasize. With radiation, again, it is all about the breast.

But going through chemo I never felt like I was fighting to save my life. I felt like I was taking a necessary, calculated precaution, because it was prudent to do so. With radiation, because it is so physical and in your face, it feels more real—like I really am trying to save my breast. Even though I started the whole treatment process feeling pretty strongly that the surgery was successful and that I was cancer free and one of the 70 percent post-surgery survivor cohort, to me the rest of this journey has been an homage to the statistical gods—to boost me to 98 percent survival.

On to the side effects—sunburn and fatigue. I assumed they would start around week three or four, but the chaffing started today—day 2! I have two types of cream I put on twice a day, and I'm armed with a boatload of wives' tales—aloe, corn starch, frozen peas, etc.

I need to find an alternative to the bra. Somehow a 52-year-old with a saggy C-cup is not the bra-less type. A friend last night told me to just pretend I was in Europe where nobody gives a damn about it. Maybe I should just GO to Europe and be done with it. So now I am a bald hippy chick with tattoos and no bra—oh, and no eyelashes, and skin that has turned to leather. One hot mamma!

As for the rest of me, I'm hanging in there. Fatigue is still present but getting more manageable. Right now the edema in my feet and legs is getting to me. I'll see the doctor soon to see if meds are the answer. I'm reluctant because I want my body to start functioning properly on its own.

My spirits are pretty high. We had a great little trip to the beach. It was not too hot, and I managed to recharge my batteries a bit—although I did hit the wall by Saturday night, and Jonathan practically had to carry me back to the hotel. Work is pretty steady right now and should be manageable through the summer.

Yesterday, we had a laugh at home. Jonathan had two dental crowns put in, and Emily had a planter's wart burned off her foot. As I made dinner, I commented that it's a pretty sad state of affairs when I am the most robust Balcombe in the house. There's hope for me yet.

Your bra-less wonder,

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