In late September, a dapper knight in shining armour (aka radiotherapy oncologist), galloped through the forest and across the fields and offered this damsel in psychological distress an immediate start to radiotherapy at a hospital in the big smoke. This act of kindness and generosity helped put my mental health back on track. After nearly ten months of active treatment for breast cancer the desire to get to the finish line had intensified and anxiety levels were climbing. News of delays to radiotherapy treatment were painful for all concerned; the patient, friends, family, medical professionals.
So, eleven weeks out from chemo and six weeks from a prophylactic surgery, I finally started radio and I am very pleased to write that my active phase of my breast cancer treatment is finally complete. I recently read an article in the New York Times which depicts what it is like to have breast cancer in a developing nation such as in Uganda. Of particular interest is the graphic a third of the way into the article which reveals the rates of breast cancer and death rates to the disease worldwide. There is also a video that documents Jesse’s story. I think anyone undergoing treatment should click the link above and read this article. This has put the high quality of the treatment I had been fortunate to receive since January into perspective.
Radiotherapy very gratefully commenced and every weekday for five weeks I arrived and was greeted by friendly staff. The small waiting room only ever had a few patients waiting, the wait was never longer than a few minutes. All facets of this radiotherapy process ran as a well oiled machine. I would arrive and change into a dressing gown kept in my own locker and make my way to the treatment room with some trepidation, where I would commence each speed dating session with Varian. I was thankful for this treatment opportunity, the genius physicists and engineers that created such a machine and the doctor geniuses that write and execute treatment plans for patients.
Varian was a tall, grey, imposing linear accelerator. The first time I laid eyes on him I was a little overwhelmed. The prospect of dancing with a linear accelerator is like having twenty five dates with someone you have no interest in dating. The daunting long road of treatment weeks ahead is overwhelming but in retrospect, it does move quickly.
For twenty five treatments I laid bare chested on my back with my arms gripped to handles above my head. The friendly and efficient human technicians would move my torso and hips into position to align my chest tattoos with the laser. Precision is everything in these circles. They would then leave the room so it was just Varian and I alone. Varian would spring to life and sometimes do a sweep over my body, with his arms outstretched he would complete a cone scan and send a fast and accurate visualisation of my bony anatomical structures in 3D to the techs computer screens outside. Then the techs would re enter the room and carefully place a bolus sheet over my chest. It was laid over my tissue expander to absorb the low dose of radiation and lift the high dose to the skin. Tissue expanders are complicating little things.
The humans would again leave the room and then it was just me and Varian, alone in each other’s company. Date, after date, after date. The one sided conversation between us was always the same. Eeeeerrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr, click, click, click, then the industrial sound of thousands of volts of radiation being projected at my chest. Not at a specific tumour as that was removed long ago, but at an area where cancer cells could localise, such as the skin, the incision site and the chest wall near where my tumour was, as well as the lymph nodes up higher near my clavicle, these beams of radiation being of a preventative nature.
Varian was always in command while I tried to breathe normally and laid perfectly still for 10 minutes. Sometimes my mind ran free and I imagined my body floating in the ocean with a dolphin swimming and circling around me because Varian’s exterior was grey and shiny this conjured up the image of a sea creature. Then at other times, it felt like I was laying on production line in an automative factory. There was something about the way his long robotic scanning parts moved into position, I felt like a part being welded. If it was early in the morning, Varian had been sleeping and the technicians would wake him up by turning him on and he would lift his gigantic head from the floor. This was the only human quality he displayed.
Varian’s gigantic cyclops head would always rotate clockwise around me, stopping at nine different angles and injecting fifteen different doses of radiation into my chest and clavicle area. But his monotonous dialogue was always the same. While I laid still and as quiet as a mouse, Varian strutted and spun and spoke…
“Errrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr, pause click click, Neeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee, pause,
Errrrrrrrrrrrrrrr, click, click, pause, Neeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee, pause,
Sometimes each of the “Neeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee” radiation firing sounds would go for five seconds and sometimes ten. Not that I was counting or anything. The monotony of the sounds made it difficult to count them, so by the end of the fourth week I gave up in my quest to count, and instead focused on recognising the nine different angles he stared at me from.
Varian’s enormous cyclops eye would blink at me with each beam projection. His columnar lead lashes moved with each pre programmed position to create a shape that the radiation is projected through. Interestingly, the final shape Varian would make, was a fairly accurate silhouette of the right side of my left tissue expander. Once I saw that shape, I knew that Varian had had his way with me. Then I would get up, get dressed and leave feeling ever so slightly violated.
At the very end of my five weeks of treatment, my skin began to redden and break down. The line of skin in the fold of my armpit began to split and peel, my nipple lost its top players of skin, but the rest of my breast (or tissue expander, I’m not sure how to to refer to them anymore) remained intact.
Before this breakdown of skin occurred, I had been religiously moisturising multiple times a day with a product called Moo Goo Light Udder Cream (see www.moogoo.com.au) A generous friend who also just finished her treatment for breast cancer mailed me some and this had been great for keeping the skin moisturised and taking the heat away. It definitely helped my skin. Different products work for different people. Some friends swear by using a leaf straight from an aloe Vera plant, though some practitioners caution against this because of the risk of infection. I also used cold compresses of flannels from the freezer, and have been bathing in saline solution (boiling water and adding 1 teaspoon to 1 litre of cooled water).
At the moment, the small areas of broken skin or open burns I have developed will require regular dressings each day. The radiation dose will continue to climb for another ten days beyond treatment and then my body should start to heal quite quickly thereafter. It is itchy and painful at times. When the burns begin to speak to me, it’s time for more Solugel. Showering also provides some relief and assists in the removal of any dressings that become stuck. The aim is to preserve the skin. I can’t help but think what it would all feel like if I hadn’t had the majority of my nerves severed from the mastectomy and axilla lymph clearance. There is a plus after all to mastectomy induced nerve damage!
Fortunately, I didn’t experience any fatigue that patients sometimes report with radiotherapy. I did however develop a sore throat in the early weeks which made swallowing some foods difficult. But despite that, there were no other effects.
My children really enjoyed their time with me in the big smoke. Despite having radiotherapy everyday for five weeks I was able to turn it into something positive for them. Life continued as normal and we were able to have some fun family experiences visiting landmarks and tourist attractions in the city. Last week, they created some pictures on our iPad to document some of the things they’ve been doing with me.
Somehow and rather hilariously, they imported a picture of a linear accelerator from my iPhoto library into a Play School Art Application and I found these pictures on the iPad. I had to laugh that Big Ted was chosen to have radiotherapy treatment.
This morning, my eldest said “Mum I wish you never got breast cancer, but I’m so excited that you’ve finished your treatment!”