Radiation: A burn that doesn’t tan

On February 27th, 2017, nearly four weeks after surgery, I began radiation treatment. Radiation was strange in that it was every day, 5 days a week, for 6.5 weeks – 33 treatments to be exact, but it only took about 5 minutes for the actual procedure each time. I spent more time changing clothes and waiting for my turn than actually getting treatment.

My consultation was a week before treatment began and it’s where I met my new radiation oncologist who was recommended by my surgical oncologist. I loved how all my doctors worked together for my treatment plan. It made me feel like nothing would be missed. The first meeting was a basic meet and greet where she answered all my questions and gave some product recommendations for the physical effects of radiation. A bad sunburn. That’s how people describe the effects of radiation treatment but I’m not sure that adequately captures the burn. I don’t have a better descriptor though, so we’ll leave it at that for now. 

As I walked into the office for my first treatment the following week, I was greeted by the two receptionists at the desk to the right. They checked me in and pointed me along to the two dressing rooms that sat right outside the waiting area. I changed into the hospital gown and sat in the small waiting room with the handful of other patients waiting for radiation. 

I looked around and noticed that everyone was middle-aged or older, and yet again, I was the young cancer patient getting looks of pity. I came to expect this in cancer settings, because it became my normal. For some reason age can really tug at the heartstrings. Having cancer at any age is difficult, it’s just a different type of difficulty with its own challenges. The exception is kids…there’s no way to not feel extra emotional when seeing or talking about kids with cancer. But I digress.

I heard my name called and walked into the radiation room for the first time. There were big caution signs on the door indicating the radiation area so that no one is accidentally exposed. Upon first glance, my eyes were drawn to the massive, floor to ceiling, white machine in the center of the room that appeared to have a large rotating arm at the head of the patient table. There were 3, maybe 4, people in the room setting up while I stood there for a few seconds unsure of what to do. 

Not long after I entered the room, they directed me to the table and reminded me that I needed the radiation tattoos first. Because radiation is toxic, they have to be incredibly precise with alignment each and every time. In an effort to maintain this precision, they had to mark me with a tiny, pen tip size tattoo in 3-4 spots to ensure they would be able to align me the same exact way for each treatment.

They had me lay down on the table, face up, with my arms raised above my head and a slight bend in my elbow. One person manipulated the machine around me, positioning it to where they thought it should be, while another went to a separate room to figure out the specifics with whatever measurements they were using. The separate room had a protected window so she could see us and direct them on any changes that needed to be made. This is also how they would come to monitor me, safely, while giving me radiation treatment.

They made whatever adjustments they needed and then marked where they intended to tattoo me. The actual process of tattooing was so basic that it made me laugh, honestly. With how scientific and advanced the radiation process is, all they did for the tattoo was put a little non-toxic ink over each spot and prick me with a needle point. That was it, and 5 years later, those little dots are still there! 

After that, they positioned me properly, told me to hold my breath, and administered the radiation exactly how they needed to. They changed positions of the rotating arm for specific angles and repeated the process. It took no more than 5 minutes and the hardest part was staying still and holding my breath at the exact times needed. I felt nothing during the treatment itself, and the daily visits became more of an inconvenience than anything else.

As time went on, the effects from the radiation increased. It’s a cumulative process so I knew by the end it would be rough. Over the first few weeks, I started noticing the redness darken and discomfort increase. On top of my hot flashes, I was now experiencing heat and discomfort from a skin burn that spanned from my right armpit and side area to the center between my breasts, up to the collar bone. 

I used calendula ointment every night, slept topless with a fan blowing on me, and tried my best not to turn over in my sleep. Physical touch hurt so shirts became uncomfortable and bras became unbearable. Lucky for me, I quit my part-time job right before surgery so I had no place I needed to be except medical appointments. I could wear incredibly loose-fitting clothes throughout the day, without a care for what I looked like, and simply just focused on lessening the discomfort. Major shoutout to those who have to work during treatment. I do not take for granted how privileged I was to be able to solely focus on treatment when needed.

Apart from some fatigue, which is common, I didn’t have any other major side effects outside of the burn. I knew I just had to stick it out and soon enough, it would be over. The end was finally in sight.
Radiation burn photos below for anyone who is interested in seeing how bad it got for me over the 6.5 weeks. If you don’t want to see photos then you’re all done with this post! Thanks for reading. 🙂

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