Radiation … lots of radiation | Breast Cancer Fight

Puyallup Portrait Photographer | Melissa Ide Photography

 

After a conversation with Dr. Sanders it was determined that I would benefit from radiation. Information is difficult to provide to patients like me that have gone through chemotherapy and had a complete reduction in the cancer tumor…. because there isn’t any!!! New trials are currently underway to determine the necessity of radiation for patients that have undergone mastectomy surgery, unfortunately, the trials haven’t finished yet. There were all kinds of old percentages and statistics that he threw my way but what stood out in my mind is that we have 3 kids, including our 4 year old daughter that needs her mommy to be alive. And so my decision was made. Go through with the radiation and watch out for future side effects.

In December I visited the Tacoma Valley Radiation Oncology Center to undergo a CT scan for treatment purposes. I changed into a gown and then I was laid on their giant metal table with my upper back, shoulders, and head resting on a strange foam contraption. There were handles behind my head to hold onto, these would be used throughout all of my treatments to hold my arms out of the way. As I lay, there the air was drawn out of the foam contraption capturing a negative depression that would allow the technicians to line me up properly for each treatment. I was given 3 tiny black light tattoos that would also assist in my alignment.

In January, after about two weeks, the nurses and I arranged a date for my trial run on the machine. There were to be 28 radiation treatments. Five days a week, for 28 treatments. When I was first shown to the back area, I was lead to a women’s changing area and shown where the clean gowns are stored. After changing and locking up my belongings I took a seat in the waiting area of the dressing room. Can I just say that leather chairs are cold against your back?!

So with tons of trepidation I soon followed my technician to the radiation room. I was overwhelmed by the Radiation signs on the door and by the size of the machine.

My familiar blue cushion and the white handles were on the table waiting for me. At the beginning of each visit I was asked for my birthday, can’t be radiating the wrong patient, and then led to the table. The awesome gown was pulled down in the front so the technicians could locate my tattoos using black light flashlights. As each was located a small mark was made on my skin with marker. The technicians and I would then begin a bit of a shimmy/dance to align me properly on the machine. Each time I was to lay my head back on the contraption and look off to the right a bit. With my arms in place, they would pull the sheet that I was laying on a bit to get everything just perfect.

There was a red laser projected through the room at all times. It was necessary in lining everything up.

After everything was lined up just right, the technicians would cover my chest with my gown and pull measurements from my account. I was moved 7.5 cm to the right and 8.5 cm superior. Then the table was lowered into position. All of these measurements were created on a computer and ran in 3D. The technicians would go back out of the room. They were kept far away from the radiation and controlled everything remotely from a counter outside of the radiation room.

The machine would rotate on the wall around my body during setup. The main glass above me would rotate to my left side briefly, then move all the way to the right even with my right side, and finally the entire thing would rotate over the top of me until it was even with my left side. There was an arm that reminded me of a robot on a tank tread and at this point in the treatment it would engage the treads and begin to shift out of the way.

My machine would then start… within the glass window there were tons of little metal fingers. The fingers would close in to form different shapes and would control how the radiation was directed onto my skin. Each of the six stops that the machine made had different configurations of the fingers. The locations of the fingers and of the machine during treatment would eventually cover my entire upper left chest, bottom left area of my neck, and my left arm pit.

I learned the pattern that the machine took. Left, upper left, a little to the right, upper right, far right, and then almost center over me. Over the course of the 28 radiations I knew where the machine would be, approximately  how many times the metal fingers would shift at each location, and approximately how long the radiation would last at each stop.

The machine made a low, buzzing noise lasting around 20-30 seconds. The final stop on it’s rotation seemed to have an even lower buzz and was the shortest in duration lasting about 7 seconds. There was no pain associated with the radiation while I was on the table. That would come later in the day after I had left the center.

The next image shows the outlines that were drawn on my trial visit to make sure that the machine/radiation had covered the entire area that was to be treated. Quick cell phone shot so they are not the easiest to see.

The end was in sight, I had counted down 23 days of my 28 day plan, my radiologist informed me that he was leaving the center because he felt that life was too short and he had other things that he wanted to pursue. I was a bit saddened at the news because we had determined that there shouldn’t be a need for a booster. My new radiation oncologist, Dr. Tran and I discussed the need for a ‘booster,’ an additional 5 days of treatment that would be narrowed down to just along the scar tissue that had been left from my mastectomy. Again, more statistics were thrown my way, I would have a 2% reduction in recurrence if I were to go through with the booster. Of course I was again reminded that I have a lot of life left to live and opted to add the additional treatment on.

And so every morning, for the last 5 days of my original plan and then 5 more boosters, I would continue to drive to the radiation center and have my treatment and then head off to work. Sometimes the machine would have a headache in the morning and I would have to drive back later in the day for my treatment, those were very long days!

My cushion was stored in this cabinet.

This was the template that the technicians would use for my booster treatments. They would lay it on my skin, align it with my tattoo, and trace the line on my chest. It was necessary to help align the machine.

 

A special plate was made specifically for me in the shape of the above template, again this is what we used and the area that was covered for the booster. My table would actually rotate in the room and the technicians would bring the machine down until it was almost touching my skin. A special piece was placed on my chest, it reminded me of ballistics gel that I had seen on Myth Busters, and then it was taped to me and the table. The purpose of this was to control the radiation and to keep it from going to far into my tissue… the goal was only about 6mm of depth. The radiation would only last about 20 seconds for the boosters… it was such a tiny amount of time that was helping to save my life.

On February 23 I finally finished all of my radiation !!!!!! I even received a certificate of completion.

The technicians were amazing!!! They greeted me every morning with a smile, were compassionate, and made it easier to go for treatment every day.

While waiting for my treatment each day I met some very sweet women that were going through their own fight against cancer. I felt like the lucky one knowing that we had caught the cancer before it spread and because I knew I had a chance at a long life. Others in the center were not as lucky. There was one woman who had terminal lung cancer and because of a slew of other medical issues chemo was never an option for her and the location of her tumor was not conducive to surgery. I watched her every morning as she came in, each day a bit more tired than the last. Every day I would leave there and go to work where some things just seemed so trivial. Perspective…. cancer has been a huge dose of perspective. I have cried many times over people that I will never see again and who I know will not win their battle, like right now as I’m writing this.

Now that I am completely finished with the radiation I have some skin burns, like sunburn only a bit worse. The ‘sloughing’ process has already begun, I anticipate all of the skin in the treated area will slowly peel. The muscles in my chest are terribly sore, achy, tired, and sometimes throbbing. Each time I contemplate the pain I am reminded that I am alive so I just try to push on.

I am working hard every day on my goals to achieve the life that I want to be living; never going to just go through the motions again!

And to my former teacher and friend Melissa, yes another one, congratulations on beating your cancer!!! She finished her radiation treatments a few days after me. And Happy Birthday!