Thursday, December 17, 2015

The one with radiation, but no super powers

Well, the next-to-last piece of my cancer treatment puzzle was radiation. I did 33 sessions of this. Radiation took place every day, Monday through Friday. Despite getting zapped 33 times with fancy electrons, x-rays, gamma rays, and whatever -- no super powers.

I found this meme on the intertubes. The typos are kind of killing me on the inside, but you get the point. 

Really, radiation wasn't all that bad. Especially when I compare it to chemo and surgery. No nausea, no hair loss, no bone aches. The main thing I felt was tired. Not every single day, and not beginning with the first session. It took a little while to build up, but I'd say after the first week and a half I could feel myself starting to drag a little bit. Then about every three or four days, I would just be totally exhausted. So wiped out that I would fall asleep at 7pm and stay asleep until my alarm went off for work the next day. Because of this, I'm so glad that I scheduled my appointments in the afternoon at 3:45pm. If it was just radiation, I could be in and out in 30 mins. Once a week I had to do x-rays and that added another 15 minutes. Now, 30-45 minutes doesn't seem so long, but when you are laying perfectly still with your arms above your head it can seem like forever. And there was no clock in the room, so I would resort to counting the number of songs that played and estimated how much time had passed. What I appreciated more than anything was that the radiation therapists had good taste in music and changed it up each day. 

All things considered, when compared to chemo treatment days, it wasn't too bad of an experience that's for sure. So, let me try to describe how all of this worked, step-by-step. 

My very first appointment consisted of a full body scan, getting all of my planes marked, and tattoos (yes, I said tattoos). They sent me through a scanner (the tube kind) and they drew all over my chest with Sharpie. The radiation techs were making sure that they could set up my treatment plan to the exact specifications necessary (kind of like programming a CNC machine). After the scanning and the drawing, they gave me 5 or 6 little tattooed dots - - some right down the middle of my chest and one on each side. These little dots are black light sensitive ink injected just under my skin. That's right. I glow under black light. I am my own version of Iron Man with my tiny glowing arc reactor dots. These glowing dots allow the radiation techs to quickly line me up in the exact same spot each day. I learned that radiation is a pretty exact science. 

My first session of radiation was on October 15, 2015. Just a little over one month after my double-mastectomy and reconstruction. Here is what one of the two radiation rooms looked like: 

Here's the radiation room. That dome like ceiling actually has little blinking star lights that look like outer space. It has a purplish pink light and then the twinkle stars when it is turned on. Then I laid on that slab, my legs went over the pillow, and then they adjusted the table to the right height and position. Then that star ship Enterprise looking thing can rotate all of the way around the slab to do both x-rays and administer the radiation treatment.

Now, in my case, I had to take my top off and wear a hospital gown. This is probably because the radiation therapists had to regularly line me up to a very specific set of measurements and regularly draw on me with Sharpies. I got to leave everything on from the waist down. Kinda strange to be wearing your pants and boots paired with a hospital gown, but oh well.

Here's the little room where you change into your gown. There are little lockers outside to put all of your stuff. You can keep all of your jewelry on, and your glasses, and your shoes.

Seriously. I will not miss those gowns. I mean, I am no fashionista, but even I know how terrible they are.  

Now, I gotta tell you, I was definitely worried about the damage that radiation could do. My radiation oncologist told me that he wanted to see my skin turn a little reddish pink. That didn't seem so bad,  but there was a chance that I could get a sunburn of sorts. There was a chance that it could have been painful. That I might need a prescription for lotion with aloe and lidocaine. I was worried, so I was really diligent in following doctor's orders and applying a good, heavy lotion to my skin each morning. I also made sure that I was drinking plenty of water each day. I wanted to make sure my skin stayed hydrated and pliable. During this time I continued to see my physical therapist who is also a lymphedema specialist. She helped me address any issues I had with cording (Remember I mentioned cords last time? The hardened "strings" of lymphatic fluid that need to be broken up?). Each session of radiation was a fresh trauma to an already sensitive and damaged area. When I would see her, she would have me run through the exercises that I was also doing at home, then work on any cords, and try to monitor my incision areas to see if I was developing any noticeable scar tissue under the skin. It was important to make sure that I didn't get a build up of scar tissue that could glob up and push on my implants. Again, I count myself lucky that I really didn't have any terrible side effects. No burns, no sores. Just a few tan lines and some peeling skin that looked like reverse freckles, see:

This is my next-to-last day of treatment. You can see where some of my skin is starting to peel.

You can see here that I definitely got a funky tan from the radiation, but no burns and no open sores. Thanks Eucerin lotion!!

After 33 sessions of treatment. I was done. On my very last day, my friends and co-workers gave me quite the surprise. They threw me a "happy last day of radiation" party. There was cake and t-shirts and music and laughter and it was great. That group of folks have been wonderful. They have been so patient and understanding and caring. I really hit the jackpot there.

They understand my deep love of good puns. THIS IS THE BEST CAKE EVER!

Oh, and did I mention that they made t-shirts with my face on them and they all wore 'em to my party? (This is my husband, not a co-worker. I can plaster his picture all over the interwebs without permission. Didn't want to do that to my co-workers.)
I showed up to my appointment that afternoon with a smile on my face and gratitude in my heart. I really didn't care that they were running late. I really didn't care that I sat in the waiting room for almost an hour. I was just so glad that it was my last day and I was eager to give the radiation therapists the thank you gift I put together for them. (5 mixed-tape CDs to add to their stash of music. As I mentioned earlier, it is really nice to have music playing while you're laying on that table. I can only imagine how many times those folks have heard the same songs over and over. Seemed like the very least I could do was to give them some new tunes.)

Another fun surprise that day was my radiation diploma. I graduated and this is my official certificate of completion. How great is this? So thoughtful and caring and it made me smile.
I even got a diploma for completing radiation. Those radiation therapists were fantastic.
Again, I am so grateful for my team of ridiculously awesome doctors and medical professionals. They did such a great job of giving me the treatment I needed to ensure that I kick the cancer's ass and keep away for a good long while, ideally, forever. They made sure I was well informed and well cared for. You really can't ask for more than that.

So, what's next? Well, I'll keep going to my physical therapist for a while so she can keep working on those dang cords that keep popping up and to massage away some small areas of scar tissue under the skin of my incision lines. Then just one more small, outpatient procedure. It is highly recommended (read: as close to a demand as you can get from your doctor) that I have my ovaries and fallopian tubes removed. Because I tested positive for BRCA, I have an increased risk for ovarian cancer. No ovaries = no ovarian cancer. Since I've definitely hit my deductible for the year, there's no time like the present to get that done. More on that later, maybe. Otherwise, it's just a matter of staying healthy. My family joined the local YMCA so I can keep active and regain my strength, flexibility, and endurance (plus it'll be fun to go to the Y as a family and swim and play basketball and stuff), and then I'll meet with my oncologist on Christmas eve to kind of recap the year and figure out a plan going forward.

So close to being able to say "I'm done with all of my cancer treatments". I'm ready for that day. And I'm still so stupidly grateful for all of the wonderful doctors, family, and friends who have been there for me from the get go. I'm ready to start giving back and sharing the light and love I've been so lucky to receive.

SO. CLOSE. TO. BEING. DONE.  Ahhhhhhh!!!!

Again, thanks to the internet, we have jokes like this.