Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Radiation Ride

Fourteen down, sixteen to go. Almost half way there.

I began radiation treatments almost 3 weeks ago, on May 17, to be exact. I have a standing 9:30 appointment everyday from now through the end of June, or when I begin to glow...whichever comes first. It's my new part-time job.

Radiation is not quite what I imagined. Not really sure what that was, but this isn't it.

Chemo finally came to a long awaited stop at the end of April, just in time for my birthday. Best gift ever! Right after this I went for what is called a "simulation". This is done a couple of weeks before radiation begins. A simulation is basically their time to get all your rad ducks in a row.

During the simulation you get to disrobe and sprawl out on a narrow table as they position you on a sort of dense bean bag sort of body pillow. My radiation covers my (missing) breast area, as well as left armpit, clavicle, and neck, so to accomplish this involves some serious overhead stretching. At least serious for me.

I knew I was in trouble when they had me lay back and raise my arms above my head, grasping wrist in hand, and then "relax" my arms down. Oh really? There is no "relaxing" my left arm when in that position. It would have been more realistic if they had said, "Now pull your left arm back until you feel the muscles scream." But, being kindly technicians they asked me to "relax".

For most people this would be a simple task. While laying back, place your arms above your head, grasp the opposite wrist, and relax. For me, not. My right arm was very obedient, but my left arm now has a mind of its own...a somewhat closed mind. As my left elbow continued to stick up in the air, they continued to insist I "relax". I quickly explained that I WAS relaxed. ...Oh.

...Helllooww! Had a mastectomy, followed by axillary dissection! Things are not what they should be. You'd think they'd be used to this sort of thing. Or maybe I fit in a new category of super-wimp.

So with some quick readjusting and finagling they managed to get my arm into an acceptable position. At least enough to run me back and forth through the CT scanner a couple of times without whacking my elbow. CT is another part of the simulation. Doc needs scans to plan for the rads.

During this time they also spent a few minutes marking and taping me. When I was back in the dressing room I expected to look in the mirror and see all sorts of cool and technical looking marks on my chest, but from what I could tell they had drawn a crude map of Arkansas in black Sharpie, then added a few red X's for dramatic effect. Some of the marks were taped over with a clear, thin sort of tape. I was told I could shower and continue life as normal, so no probs. Distance swimming was discouraged, though.

I was back for actual radiation two weeks later. The first day was by far the hardest. On this day I met the technicians who have been treating me daily. Again, they laid me out on a table, this time in the "cradle". Sounds comfortable, doesn't it? Don't be fooled. The cradle is the form created from the imprint of my body in the bean bag thing during the simulation...painful arm position and all.

This whole first treatment ordeal takes about an hour. Lying on a table for an hour seems like no big deal, except when you have my left arm. It was an hour of torture. As they adjusted me, removed old tape, re-marked, re-taped, said things like "slide her up a few centimeters, 85, 97, that's good, what do you have?, 95, scoot her over a bit, hold still, be right back,... *silence*...*silence*...*silence*..."

I lay there with a shoulder beginning to cramp, looking at the images of spring trees in the plastic coverings over the fluorescent lighting above, and feeling a bit surreal. Am I really doing this? Am I really about to let them irradiate me? It's amazing what the desire for remission will allow.

The shoulder cramping got worse and when I pitifully and childishly asked "how much longer?" and was told "about 20 minutes" I almost had a panic attack. Yep, I'm a wimp. I tried to imagine I was lying in a grassy meadow, as the images of spring foliage above insinuated, but that was a joke. During the middle of everything it dawned on me that I'd given birth twice, without epidural, so surely I could do this. A little Lamaze breathing helped, too.

Finally, they got everything just the way they wanted, had finished the final drawing project on my topless chest, and it was time for my first treatment. This only lasted a few minutes and included something called a "bolus". A bolus, in this instance, is a warm wet towel spread over my chest during treatment. As it was explained to me, this "tricks" the radiation into thinking my skin is thicker than it is and will make my skin pinker so the doctor can actually see the effect on my skin. I get the wet towel treatment every third day.

The radiation itself comes from a rather large, robotic cyclops sort of machine with a long neck and large flat and round sort of eye with a large square pupil. As my table is automatically raised and moved toward the cyclops, the cyclops comes to meet me. It hovers around and over me, zapping me from above and both sides, and at intervals that I now have memorized. I know when the eye is right above me and I hear the long rhythmic whirring and tinking sound that it's almost over.

I see Dr. Ross once a week so he can make sure all is as it should be. Right now side effects are beginning to become more pronounced. Skin on my left chest area, shoulder, and neck is changing, both in color and texture. I also have a continual sore throat due to one section of my esophagus being hit with the rads. Not really feeling the fatigue yet, and I'm not planning to.

Compared to chemo, this is a cakewalk.

Daily treatments have become routine. I stay longer on Wednesdays to see the doctor, but otherwise I'm in and out without much ado. Enough time to grab the gown from my own personal cubby, disrobe, wrap up in the extra large gown, lock clothing in cabinet, and park myself in the waiting area. They usually call me back right away and off we go to Rad Land.

I have sixteen treatments to go, with weekends and holidays off, so I should be finished by the end of June. After that, the only treatment I will be receiving is prayer...a definite group effort. Thanks to all of you who are helping with that one!


  1. You are a true warrior, Patti! I will be praying for you at 9:30 every morning throughout June as well as every time I think of you throughout the summer. I pray that there are no lasting side effects of the radiation, no more pain, and for complete healing. Hang in there!! Sherry Zehner

  2. Just about to start radiation for 6 weeks after double mastectomy, and previously 33 weeks of chemo...cancer on the left as well. I only have done the first part of the routine, arm over head for about 20 minutes, tattooed (ouch) and going next week for the the hour long simulation..thanks for explaining it...I am afraid I won't be able to stand my arm up there that long either!!! You did it, so will I!!