My blog post titles are super creative, aren’t they? Done, Cancer Sucks, Working out with Cancer…well at least you can’t accuse me of mincing words. In my Instagram poll that I discussed in my last post, people also wanted me to talk about my experience with radiation…and I’ve actually wanted to document it for myself and for other cancer patient’s sake, so here we are! The thing is, I handled radiation fairly well and I count my lucky stars for that because if it would’ve been too challenging, I might have thrown in the towel before all 28 total treatments were completed. Seriously.
So backing up a bit, I had my consult for radiation before chemo was even completed because I was anxious to get everything over with and behind me before the start of 2019. I wanted a “clean” slate with the new year. All along I knew there was a solid chance I was going to go through radiation, but not one doctor would actually say to me “you are definitely having radiation”. Everyone kept saying “it’s worth a discussion”. The reason why is because while the cancer was in my lymph nodes, it was only in 3 of the 21 they removed. On paper, anyone who has cancer in 4 or more lymph nodes gets radiation therapy. Below that is doctor / patient discretion. So I was on the cusp…but I wanted anything that would prevent this from coming back again – so I didn’t care either way. I chose one of the best radiation oncologists in the state of Minnesota, who happened to be downtown Minneapolis, which is a 30 minute drive from my home without traffic. Not bad at all…considering my experience with a similar distance in Chicago – that drive would’ve been closer to 90 minutes. When I went for my consult with her she basically said that when she sees cancer in the lymph node, whether it’s in 1 or whether it’s in 30…she always radiates, especially given my age (young!). So radiation it was. She went back and forth on whether to do 28 or 33 total treatments (those last 5 treatments would’ve been a “boost” focused on where my tumors were), but she felt confident going with a lesser aggressive approach and doing 28. I felt confident that she was confident!
Before your first treatment session, you’ll go through a radiation therapy planning session, where your oncologist and her team carefully map your breast area to target the precise location of your treatment.
During the simulation:
- A radiation therapist helps you into a position best suited to target the affected area and avoid damage to surrounding normal tissue. Sometimes pads or other devices are used to help you hold the position.
- You have a CT scan so that the radiation oncologist can locate the treatment area and normal tissues to avoid.
- Your radiation therapist will mark your body with semipermanent ink, or with tiny permanent tattoo dots (I chose the tattoo because it felt easier to me and they are literally not noticeable. It’s two small dots!). These marks will guide the radiation therapist in administering the radiation at every single treatment.
- The dosimetrist, radiation physicist and radiation oncologist use computer software to plan the radiation treatment you will receive. Once the simulation and planning are complete and multiple quality assurance checks are done, you then begin treatment.
I regret to tell you I never took any pictures during active radiation. Actually, I don’t regret this at all…no one wants to see me topless laying on a gross CT table. Nothing about receiving radiation hurts at all. And treatment itself literally takes 5 minutes. At my clinic, they would take weekly scans and measurements, to see how everything looked and I would meet with my doctor once a week on those days as well – so those appointments were longer, no more than 30 minutes. The two side effects I was warned about were exhaustion and radiation burn. I never experienced the exhaustion piece, I don’t think (is it radiation, or our four crazy kids, especially Rose, waking us up at night?!). Radiation is giving you a mild sunburn and you go every week day, so as you can imagine, after a few weeks, your skin looks (and smells!) like it’s had too much sun. Luckily for me (if you can call this lucky?), because I had a mastectomy, I have zero sensation on my chest or under my arm (lymph node area) – so I basically never felt the rawness of the sunburn. You are told to put a specific lotion on that they give you multiple times a day. Because I literally do everything in life with a lot of intensity and dedication, I put lotion on every single hour. I think I went through 30 tubes of the lotion they gave me. Speaking of lotion, USE CALENDULA. Any and ALL forms you can find. The lotion my doctor gave me to use was amazing (I’m linking everything I used during radiation at the end of this post) and all natural/toxic free which, for a gal like me, made me super excited! Regardless, if you are going to take ONE thing away from this post, MOISTURIZE AS MUCH AS HUMANLY POSSIBLE…and then moisturize again. I cannot emphasize this enough. I truly believe this is what saved my skin. I’m almost 3 weeks out from my last treatment and my skin is completely healed. I never peeled and the redness went away within days.
The absolute hardest part of radiation for me was getting myself there every. single. day. And I think in the winter (especially in places where it’s snowy and cold), it can be a little trickier because the roads can really be downright dangerous some days. I called my mom several times telling her I couldn’t do the drive anymore. I know that sounds silly, but trust me, it gets old. I think it helps to break your week up and have a friend or significant other lined up every week to take you to radiation once or twice. I had a few friends do that for me and it was a total game changer on those days!
On that note, but a little sidetrack from radiation itself…if you are a friend or loved one of a person going through radiation – DO NOT MAKE THAT PERSON ASK YOU TO DRIVE THEM. Don’t say to them “hey if you ever want company, I’d love to take you some time.” Because chances are that person is terrible at asking for help and doesn’t want to put you out…so just tell them when you are taking them to treatment. Seriously. And after treatment, take your cancery friend for lunch. And maybe a glass of wine. Or two.
So many people come to me after they have a friend or loved one newly diagnosed wondering what they can do to help. Truth? Just be there for that person. Show up. If you say you are going to bring dinner, bring it. If you say you are going to mail them something, mail it. If you say you are going to take them to an appointment, take them. And if you can do none of that for time constraints or financial reasons…text, email or call. Let that person know you are thinking of them and praying for them constantly. And now I’m off my soap box.
By the time radiation came, I was exhausted. Mentally, physically…just completely beat. It came at the end of chemo, which came at the end of two massive surgeries. Couple that with hosting Thanksgiving (my choice) and Christmas craziness with four young kids who all very much still believe in Santa Claus…it was a crazy few weeks, but radiation is nothing compared to surgery and recovery from it and chemotherapy. I hope I addressed everything here, but as always…if you have any specific questions – leave it in the comments section below and I’ll answer you! ‘Cado on!
Radiation shopping list:
Boiron Calendula Cream (get the 3 pack, you’ll need it – trust me!): https://www.amazon.com/Boiron-Calendula-Cream-2-5-Pack/dp/B00NGWXAP6/ref=sr_1_4_a_it?ie=UTF8&qid=1547752915&sr=8-4&keywords=calendula+cream
Beautycounter Baby Daily Protective Balm (this is not me pushing my products on you, this stuff is AMAZING and works, promise!): https://www.beautycounter.com/product/baby-daily-protective-balm
All of these lotions ruin your shirts, so try to avoid wearing anything nice during radiation and buy LOTS of these: https://www.amazon.com/Hanes-FreshIQ-V-Neck-T-Shirt-Medium/dp/B00LSRU162/ref=sr_1_8?s=apparel&ie=UTF8&qid=1547753090&sr=1-8&nodeID=7141123011&psd=1&keywords=hanes+t+shirts+for+men
And these: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B00HVVVMM6/ref=sxr_rr_xsim_1?pf_rd_p=9ddc66f6-9fc0-49ff-b2fa-06a39d9859e6&pd_rd_wg=4rjn7&pf_rd_r=1PMEDDR4TCAQYVTJRZTD&pd_rd_i=B00HVVVMM6&pd_rd_w=ku60n&pd_rd_r=2417f098-2a28-4909-9655-f67aa06434d3&ie=UTF8&qid=1547753090&sr=1
And here is the link to the amazing sweatshirt I’m wearing in the photo above. This company and their mission is seriously the best: https://www.theshopforward.com/collections/espwa/products/4-things-cancer-fighter-pullover