The day had finally arrived… My first radiation treatment. June 7, 2016— that 7 makes it good luck right? 😉 This is a day I will always remember because out of this whole cancer filled journey, 1. I dont have signs of cancer anymore and 2. This is truly the most frightening part for me simply because its long term effects are so unknown.
When I’ve talked to people who had been through chemo and radiation, they literally think I’m crazy because “they sayyyyy” if you made it through chemo the worst is over and radiation is a walk in the park. I guess for me it was moreso looking up side effects and seeing goozing burns, leather burnt skin, and horror stories with post reconstruction, maybe that scared me so badly? Or maybe it’s simply the fact that I truly had noooooo idea what to expect?
Truthfully, In my crazy (bleached) blonde head… I imagined radiation to be something like a room guarded by laser beams. Come on, like in the movies where you’d have to do back bends and limbo in order to make it through without being killed or an alarm going off and you getting busted! Perhaps I do live in too much of a fairytale land, however this was my fear. And not to mention my pre assumption of the radiation beams or in my head lasers shooting out of the machine, in red strikes of course… And chopping through my body something like in fruit ninja!
On my first day, it was a Monday and my appointment was for 3:45pm. This appointment was my “radiation stimulation” as they call it so I didn’t actually receive treatment. My husband John came with me and as we arrived in the parking garage my heart was doing tumble saults. I made my radiation oncologist Dr. Trombetta and his staff some homemade strawberries as a sort of bribe to not kill me;).
As we got off the elevator the unit secretary Becky was there. Every single time I see this woman she is smiling, so kind, and always compliments me on something! She literally makes my day. However, I was so nervous that as she asked me questions and I was literally on the verge of tears yet held them back behind my large plate of strawberries! I asked if Dr. Trombetta would be around so I could give him a strawberry and it was like he was on cue. Out from around the corner peeped my doc!
Dr. Trombetta is amazing to describe him simply. Along with my other doctors throughout this journey, he truly shows empathy, compassion, love, and drive to help others. He actually has a larger than life personality too… I love a real down to earth doctor! He is always sitting down and speaking to me at my level! It makes me feel like a human and not just another breast cancer case. It’s kinda weird to think about it, but he never knew the pre-cancer meghan. He never knew of the long blonde hair Meghan that bobbled around without a care in the world. For that reason actually, I did wear my wig when I had my first radiation appointment. That may have been the last time I’ve worn my wig too…
Anyways, so I saw Dr. Trombetta in the hall, gave him a strawberry and broke down. I couldn’t hold it in! I was a little weeping willow. John rubbed my back and Dr. Trombetta grabbed my arm and walked me into the treatment room signaling to his nurse to grab some tissues I believe because before I knew it his nurse Scott was handing me a box of tissues! Did I already say this office is absolutely fabulous? After calming me down he explained that today was the monthly breast cancer round table with multiple professionals, and once again they were discussing my case! I am sorta famous in the hospital you know, I might as well walk around doing the princess wave!
My radiation sessions are performed at Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh PA. They have an amazing group of volunteers and one program specifically ran through the volunteers department is making scrub tops for radiation patients for easier accessibility. On this first day, I was guided to a rack sorted by sizes and a kazillion printed scrub tops. Of course I picked the brightest pink with sunshines all over it… What else would describe me so perfectly!
As I almost embarrassedly grabbed a top because although I was soooo grateful to not wear a hideous normal hospital gown… This was realization that I’m different. I officially have a radiation top :(. The radiation tech who may have only been a few years older than me didn’t really go for the whole “you can just pick me out a pretty one”. Guys just dont get the hints… aka. “I am too uncomfortable please do it for me type thing”… However I suppose he was also just being nice and wanted me to “like” my new top that I would be wearing for the next 3 months or 30 sessions.
He walked me into “the room”. All it is basically is a large room with a ginormous machine in the middle. It also has a computer monitor in one corner of the room and 2 green laser apperatures from one wall and the ceiling directly over the radiation machine. Its kinda self explanatory though when there is a table with a sheet on it you sorta know thats where I lay right?!
So lets back on track a tiny bit. A few weeks prior to my initial session, I was brought in to get “casted”. Basically, they used an x-ray, to get specific measurements of where exactly they would be radiating or using the X-ray to target. Once again, radiation therapy is very specific and targeted therapy. The tumor’s location or sub clavicle, sentinel, and axillary nodes in my case were marked on my skin with a permanenet marker then covered with a little sticky clear plastic bandaid almost. I received three marks down the center of my chest and two on each of my sides near my arm pits. These “marks” or as some describe them as “tattoos” help the doctors to precisely aim the radiation beam and not hit anythig important you know. SIDETONE: many facilities use different things to mark these spots. Some facilities even do permanent tattooing… aka it is extremely important that these marks DO NOT move or get lost! Reminder: the goal in all this is to keep me alive right!– perhaps this is where I get my anxiety from? I’m not the best at trusting…;)
Anyways, you may receive an immobilizer to help you stay in the same exact position throughout each treatment. I hear they use tape, foam sponges, headrests, or plaster casts. In my case, they used a sort of mold that had material on the outside and what felt to me like small little beads inside… I laid on the xray table and they positioned my arms above my head, hands interlocking. It took probably 15 mins to set… and woolah, I officially had my radiation cast! Nice hard, and another thing that is permanent in this journey. Not saying it is at all comfortable… But hey, I guess its better than moving and the beam hitting my heart right?!This casting is then labeled and strapped with my permanent marker and used only for me! Every single treatment session my body is now in the exact same position and the radiation beams target the same exact spots every time therefore killing all those evil cancer cells that may still exist in my little pitter aka arm pit aka B-O as I refer to it as.
For a breast cancer patient and in my case specifically my radiation treatments are targeting my sub clavicular, sentinel and axillary nodes. As per good ole Web MD, “In breast cancer, the sentinel node is usually located in the axillary nodes, under the arm. If the sentinel node is positive, there may be other positive lymph nodes upstream”. In my case 1 axilla lymph node had positive cancer cells therefore they assume that the sentinel node just because of the way our systems are designed would have cancer cells. Therefore, my arm positioning during all sessions are above my head… A tid bit uncomfortable especially right after an expander fill, however by this point about 2 weeks following my last expansion fill, it isn’t too uncomfortable.
My first session was strictly to make sure that my radiation oncologist used his brilliant brain perfectly and that all the very complex measurements and data are specific and precise enough to kill the cancer and not kill me! Pretty simple you know;). I went in and was probably on the table for maybe 15 mins in my cast, laying on my back with my arms above my head and my head turned to the left (away from my right side radiation). Afterwards, Dr. Trombetta walked John and I into the “data collection” room where different technicians had numerous computer screens with xrays and numbers, and letters, and colors… It made me wayyyyy thankful I’m an occupational therapist and surely DO NOT have their job! However I am over the moon thankful to have them!;)
I went back into the changing room and returned to the person I walked in as. Non gowned, and noone would ever know that I am now officially a radiation patient. Later that night I received a phone call from an unknown number. Dr. Trombetta was checking on me and making sure I still wasn’t crying or too upset over the session! How absolutely incredible and amazing is that! In that moment I knew… I entirely trust this man with my life because he cares!
Tuesday came in a blink of an eye, literally…and I think I was soooo anxious the entire day that all I could think about was “is it going to hurt, will it burn, will I survive or I be death by radiation beam”?! John drove me again, and we got front row parking, SCORE!!! It was a sign, everything would be just fine! John held my hand the entire walk down to the radiation department, underground level 02— even lower than the morgue in this hospital! The elevator opended and Becky again was there to greet me, exchange my parking tag, and check me in. I was instructed to walk around to the radiation waiting room and in that moment I realized that this would soon turn into my daily M-F routine.
The radiation department waiting room is small but comfy. I mean, if you ask me it could use a fresh coat of paint and modern decor however its none of my business right;) (however this may be my next discussion with good ole Dr. Trombetta:) they do have lots of seats, a table in the middle with a puzzle with a kazillion pieces, and a little coffee bar with snacks! I took this as a sign that hydrating before and after sessions is soooo important and nourishment! Check!! I will forever eat before sessions!
In the corner of the waiting room is a gold bell. At the conclusion of someone finishing their radiation rounds, they ring the bell signifying completion and start of a new life! I cannot wait to ring the heck out of that damn bell!
They called me back, I changed into my scrub top which I brought with me, luckily I remembered… And after a few selfies;) out into the treatment room I went. I was instructed to lay on the xray table, and I met my long lost friend aka my mold which guided my arms into the pefect position. It gave me the sense of comfort to know I was locked in position. My belly began to fill with butterflies, then I had a hot flash, then the technician told me he’d be walking out of the room but will be able to see and hear me the entire time! Once they aligned my body per the measurements they devised, adjusted the bed, turned on some green laser beams, instructed me to keep my head turned left and out they went…
The Beetles were playing overhead, but it was in that moment I felt alone. Perhaps the most alone that i’ve ever felt. I was alone, well aside from them creeping on me from some monitor somewhere. It was me, laying on a table, half dressed, a nippleless tit exposed and vulnerable and a huge machine closer but not touching me. Over an intercom they said they were starting and to hold still. They told me I can breath (per my MD, research doesn’t specifically state any added benefits to holding your breath during sessions) so I tried not to take huge inhales and sorta began a slight meditation.
When the radiation beam is going it sounds to me anyways like the polishing wand at a dentists office or the swarm of bees that follow Winnie the Pooh around for different amounts of time. I believe I receive 36 seconds-5 seconds at a time. The machine is first positioned right over top of my body, close but never touching, to the right side of my body- I believe shooting upward at my armpit but im not completely sure because I can’t turn my head to look, and then to the left of my body so my face can literally look into the machine but it is shooting downward across the top of my chest.
Three songs later, about 12 zaps of different lengths and a tinsy bit of a chill over my body because of being exposed, the technician intercomed in “Meghan you are all done you can take your hands down”. “Ahhhh”! I think I say that everytime! Total, I think I lay on the table about 10-15 mins… But it truly feels like eternity! It is soooo hard to lay still, not talk, not sing, not itch that itch that of course appears on my cheek in the very moment I literally cannot itch it! Gosh this sucks! However it could be worse!
So that was it! I hopped off the table, went back to the dressing room to return to being me… And I was done! Upon walking out to the car however I began to feel slightly different. I felt lightheaded, than nauseous, than got the worst headache I have ever felt! John got me home, I drank water, and cuddled up wit Izzy for a nap. I woke up feeling groggy, dang I hopped this wouldn’t be for every session! Well… 29 to go!
Treatment sessions 2-5 were about the same. On Friday I notified the technician of my symptomology and they paged the doctor almost immediately. They took my blood pressure, which was high after my session, brought me into a room and I began to cry… Again. It’s scary when things that aren’t typical happen! Why cant’ I just be normal!
Basically my symptoms lightheadedness, nausea, senstivity to light or photophobia, and a headache behind my eyes or squeezing my head describe migraines! What in the world!?! I’ve almost never had even a headache before, one week of radiation and I have yet another diagnosis to add to my list? Migraines?! They wanted to get a brain MRI but I would have had to go through the ED and we all know that would completely ruin my Friday plans, so I made a deal to monitor my symptoms, try some exedrin, sleep and return to the hospital if they got any worse.
Saturday and Sundays are my break days! I went to bed Friday at almost 5 am because I took exedrin and drank a mountain dew thinking the caffeine would help my head. WRONG! I decided to watch some lifetime movies and scare the daylights out of myself as I’m sitting in the dark (next to a snoring John and Izzy) as different wives kill their husbands, daughters get raped and kidnapped, and someone lurking in the corn fields is spying on someone plotting their death! You know, typical lifetime! Hahaha
So far sessions 5-10 have been rather uneventful compared to the first week. My headaches have lessened and no skin changes just yet! That reminds me!!
My skin regimen: (since everybody asks…)
Although I am sooo thankful for so many recommendations for lotions, aquaphor, aloe or cocoa butter as my doctor recommended, I like research and experimenting… So, I have strictly been using CBD oil (lotion by RX Canna Care) that I apply 2-3 times a day.
** I also used CBD oil through this company during my chemo treatments and NEVER threw up!!! Read my prior posts for details…
This Canna Cream is all handmade. All Natural and Organic Ingredients sourced from around the world. Flavors are: Lemon Grass, Egyptian Lotus, Pineapple Guava and Grapefruit Quench. EACH CAN CONTAINS A REAL Amethyst, Citrine, or Quartz CRYSTAL !!! SOLAR CHARGED FOR ADDITIONAL ENERGY!
Bulgarian lavender essential oil, vitamin E (tocopherol), neroli, cornstarch, grape seed oil, Rose Geranium Essential oil, Italian extra virgin olive oil, Baja avocado oil, sweet almond oil
Sri Lankan virgin coconut oil raw cold pressed, African ivory shea butter raw unrefined, raw cocoa butter, whole flower calendula extract.
*I have also been instructed to apply no more than 3 hours before treatment sessions because they don’t like oily residue on you doing treatments. I also drink atleast 2 water bottles in the morning before sessions, and 1-2 following treatments to stay hydrated!
Like I said before… my hospital does provide scrub tops adapted by the volunteers of the hospital. However, The Radiant Wrap provided me with a gorgeous, sparkly, soft like butter, silk designer wrap that makes going to radiation actually something I look forward to doing because I get to change into this piece of art! The company is run by a survivor herself! She puts her heart and passion into making these beauties… and that is exactly what they are! They give me spunk, increase my self esteem, and make me feel comfortable in an uncomfortable situation!
All in all, I am taking every day one step at a time. I lead by the quote “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade”… and that is exactly what I am doing with this part of the journey. The fatigue is setting in slightly, however I will NOT allow it to ever dull my sparkle*
Here are some pics (1 from each day of radiation) sessions 1-12! More updates to come! (Sorry this post was soooo long… I guess I should keep up on this blogging thing 🙂 ).