Glowing In The Dark — Radiation

Fried egg, anyone?

Adapted from a page originally published in September, 2008.

“Captain’s Log, Starship Enterprise.
Planet Gamma-Globulin, Week One of Abduction:

Well-meaning human-like creatures took more ‘pictures’ of my upper quadrant today with their massive ‘camera.’ Say they must repeat this for several days in a row, but won’t say why. Use polysyllabic, latinate language to express themselves when they think I’m not listening. Am trying to cooperate in hopes they’ll take me to their leader.
Capt. Quirk”

Receiving radiation treatment for cancer is a lot like being abducted by aliens & spirited off into outer space. You are led into this white room & instructred to lie down on a table topped with a metal grid with a meager strip of upholstery down the middle, all of which goes up & down on a hydrolic lift. At the head of this table is what looks like a massive floor lamp & is called a linear accelerator (one ‘L’ not two).

If you are one of those geeks who likes science news, then you may be familiar with linear accelerators from stories about experiments in particle physics, in which they “smash” atoms together & work with superconductors. Just what you want to be thinking about while you are lying there, half naked, with your boobs hanging out of your johnny, waiting to get fried. In radiation oncology, a linear accelerator is used to direct X-rays at cancer tumors or suspected cancer cells in a very precise manner, so that the radiation is focused only where it’s needed & not where it isn’t. So they say.

So, you lie on this miserable table & the radiation therapists draw X’s on you with Magic Marker over the tatooed dots they stuck on you during your radiation dress-rehearsal, which they call a simulation. Then they nudge & wiggle you so that your tattoos line up in the crosshairs (yes, crosshairs — really comforting, like having a sniper take a bead on you) on the projection lens of the accelerator, which is about two feet across. I don’t know if they even call it a lens — I’m a photographer, not a physicist — but it looks like a mondo lens that is attached to this enormous, curved, standing arm that rotates & swoops the lens in & out & around you in a rather alarming manner so that it can shoot X-rays at the area (i.e., your boob) that is bracketed by your dot tattoos. So, the radiation therapists get you all set up to be zapped & then leave the room.

They leave the room because they are about to shoot poison death-rays at you. I mean, let’s not get cute here. They want to get the heck out of the way. So, they go into another room where they watch you on a video camera that shows you on their computer screen, so that they don’t get zapped while they’re zapping you & also so that you don’t secretly wiggle once they’ve left you all nice & lined up to get zapped. Then that mondo lens swoops right up next to one of your tattoos & you have to hold still. You hear a loud beep for about half a minute, then it stops. The lens then swoops up & over your body & repositions itself beside your other tattoo. It swoops in for its final close-up, beeps loudly again, and, as they say in Britain, Bob’s your uncle. Do you want that sunny-side-up or over-easy??

This really doesn't need any explanation, does it?

I don’t really have to explain this animation, do I? Because of course you have a secret fear that your boob is going to glow in the dark after radiation. It doesn’t, by the way, but it does glow a bright pink in places, like a bad sunburn. Most of us also develop something called folliculitis, which is when the hair follicles that hold the fine, tiny hairs on your zapped breast become inflamed and burst, and you feel this weeping on your skin, like dozens of teensy blisters popping. Some women also develop actual cracks in their skin. Many of us find that our armpits sustain the worst burn. Mine swelled up a few days after I was, thank god, finished with radiation treatments. It’s a lot like sun poisoning, which I’ve also had in my life. Not fun. Eventually, you may end up with some darkened spots from your “tanning sessions,” but mostly, you have to slather various unguents on your skin for quite a while and not wear a bra if you don’t have to. Actually, I had to lie down for a few days and not wear anything at all for hours at a time, my skin was so tender. Plus, your breast is also still recovering from surgery, mind you, so that’s contributing to the discomfort. So, thus slathered with gel or cream and wearing as little as you can get away with, you bide your time until your skin recovers.

Then the rest of you has to recover. My radiation oncologist warned me that I might be “a little tired” from radiation, that I might need “an extra hour of sleep” each day. Hah! After my seventh treatment session, I could barely crawl out of my car when I got home, drag myself into the house and pour myself into bed for the rest of the day. No surprise, I guess, that by the end of my second week of radiation, I came down with a fierce head cold and had to be put on an equally fierce antibiotic.

On the whole, everyone at the radiation center was sweet and caring, and there was free valet parking. But they do tend to soft-peddle the side effects, I think. They did admit that radiation will affect your tissue for as long as two years after your treatment. That’s one of the reasons that you can’t have any further breast surgery for a while afterwards, because among other things, radiation apparently tends to damage the capillaries and other small blood vessels around the treated area, which could hamper the healing process from further surgery.

For better or worse, the day after my armpit swelling calmed down, which was about 5 days after I finished radiation, I returned to work. On the whole, it was a good thing, because I was sick to death of being a cancer patient. Any day of being a regular working stiff is better than 5 minutes of being a cancer patient. I was exhausted when I got home from work, but at least I had something else to think about besides cancer.

I’m still tired, by the way. But as I’ve taken to saying lately, at least I’m alive to complain about it.

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2 Responses to “Glowing In The Dark — Radiation”

  1. Even though they warned me about the fatigue that would show up around the third week of my radiation treatments, I did not believe them. I should have believed them. I was so fatigued, I had to stop and rest on the way from my car in the parking lot to the lobby of the building where I worked. Often I would also have to rest for a few minutes after reaching the lobby before continuing on to the elevator that took me up to my office on the third floor. My walking pace became slower and slower. I used to walk very quickly, with purpose. Now I walked soooo slow, it almost seemed that I was going backwards. It is only just recently – two years after the end of my radiation treatment – that I have a quickness and bounce back in my step. Not all the time, but every so often. Then I think, “Hey! This almost feels like I used to walk!!”
    Radiation was way more harder then chemotherapy. Maybe it was because I wasn’t working during chemo, while I was back to full time before starting radiation. Maybe it was the long, traffic filled commute to the facility after working all day. Maybe it was due to not having that startup dose of Atavan to calm you down before getting pumped full of poison. Maybe it was being with those big, noisy monstrous machines all by your lonesome. Maybe it was all just so much more terrifying being laid out exposed on a slab than relaxing in a recliner taking a nap, watching T.V., or reading while being infused. Whatever it was, I was so glad when that “treat” ended.

  2. I still have shoulder & chest pain & tightness every day, 3 years out now, from radiation. I am finally beginning to feel some real relief from the fatigue, but I, too, have to take everything more slowly now. The thing that really gets me is that I could have taken a different treatment route & avoided radiation altogether. I’m glad you are finally starting to feel peppier, Kathy. It’s a looooong haul, isn’t it?

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