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Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Preparing for Adventures in Radiation


Two weeks ago I had a consultation with Dr. Ruth Williamson (above), the lead radiation oncologist and medical director at Huntington Hospital's Cancer Center

"One of your nodes was positive for cancer
and it was a pretty significent deposit 
and there was some extension of cancer cells
outside of that lymph node."

The entire first floor is made up of cancer testing and treatment facilities, all in a spa-like atmosphere. This is one of the radiation rooms:

And this is one of the waiting areas, with a soothing water feature.

Another nice touch in a waiting area:

"The two most common side effects are fatigue 
and radiation sunburn. If you have an area 
that peels, that can potentially be harmful 
and cause infection, so I want to hear from you about that right away if it happens 
so we can modify what we’re doing."

I had been quite anxious about this meeting with Dr. Williamson for two reasons: radiation was a scary concept to me with that great-unknown factor; and I had been given the gift of all of December off from cancer treatments to give my body a post-chemotherapy break, so I equated this meeting with having to face the reality of my situation again and I wasn't exactly anticipating that with relish.

My friend Judy Kent came with me so I wouldn't have to go through it alone and so I would have a second set of ears in the meeting. As we sat in a waiting area after checking in, I wanted to run for the door in a panic, although I didn't articulate this to Judy.

Why couldn't all this just be over with? Why did I have to deal with any of this at all? Why couldn't I just hide under my bed in a fetal position in hopes the reality bogeyman would take a flying leap?

But here we were, and that was that.

"With the CT scan I want to see where your affected breast tissue is. I want to include 
your lymph nodes. And then I’ll do a 
plan for treatment with a physicist."

After giving me a full examination from head to toe, including a breast exam, Dr. Williamson explained why I need radiation, what to expect and much more. It was somewhat overwhelming, which is why I was pleasantly surprised that she audio-recorded the meeting and handed me the CD when we were finished.

The purple-colored quotes sprinkled throughout this post are from that meeting, spoken by Dr. Williamson.

"If we don't treat your breast, you have 
a 30% risk of the tumor coming back 
smack dab in the same place."

OK, she had my attention. Gulp.

I went back a week later for a CT scan and to get four little tattoos on my left breast so the radiation beam can be targeted to the same precise spots each time.

"If I do have to come in from the front 
with an extra field, the possibility 
of lymphedema is what will 
keep me awake at night. We’ll just have to 
monitor you very, very closely." 

The radiation therapist, who will be with me throughout the treatment process, is a male. After he greeted me in the waiting area and escorted me to a CT scan room, he showed me where to change out of my blouse and bra and put on a gown.

He said he wanted me to know that if I preferred a female radiation therapist, he could arrange for that. He wanted to make sure I was completely comfortable.

No, I said. I trusted he had seen it all before.

Here's what the Philips Big Bore CT machine looks like:

Before the 10-minute CT scan, while I was lying on the table with my left arm extended up and to the side, Dr. Williamson marked four spots with a Sharpie where she wanted tattoos applied, drew some lines here and there and took some photos.

After the CT scan, during which I was inside and then outside and then inside and then outside the tube, my radiation therapist introduced me to the man who would be giving me the four little tattoos.

My only frame of reference with tattoos had been watching a couple of episodes of reality shows about tattoo parlors.

So I didn't really know what to expect. The tattoo technician didn't have one of those tattoo parlor drill machines after all. Instead, he had four thick needles, each filled with dye.

He never said one word. Not one. I couldn't see what he was doing, nor did I want to. As he felt around my skin a little bit, my radiation therapist suddenly blurted, "You're going to feel a stab!"

And a stab it was. A violent one. In four places. Four stabs. Thank goodness the radiation therapist said something as Tattoo Man was poised to strike, because Tattoo Man wasn't talking. Sadist.

"I do have some women who absolutely 
do not want to get the tattoos. They want 
the stickers, which can certainly be applied, 
but the problem is that stickers 
can fall off or shift a little bit."

Here's one of my little tattoos:

So now you're up to date. I'll go back one more time before radiation treatments begin, this time for a trial run on the machine without any beams beaming. 

"The only permanent skin color change 
will be the areola, the dark area 
around the nipple. It might end up 
somewhat lighter in color or even 
a lot lighter than the other side." 

Oh, joy.

Stay tuned for more Adventures in Radiation...

Photo credits: Ann Erdman, Huntington Hospital, Philips, Smarter Every Day


  1. It is/was truly an adventure. My tips - #1, don't freak out if there are cancellations, causing you to miss a day or two. Apparently that is not wholly unusual with these machines. #2, sometimes any side effects take some time to "cook." So if you start having ANY issues, tell them right away. For me, my issues included a fungal infection under my boob. Apparently boob sweat + radiation killing all the good skin bacteria can create an avenue for ringworm. Also, once my underarm skin started burning, it got raw FAST. But another friend had her radiation for seven weeks and did NOT get either condition. So you may not, either.

    I found it interesting to try to come up with a description of what the machine noises sounded like. The first one that occurred to me was a coffee grinder trying to make love to an adding machine. You are going to do fine, I have faith. :-)

    1. I like your description of the machine noises, Beverly!

  2. I'm glad to read Beverly's comment. The more angel warriors the better. We want to outnumber the sadists.

    1. Yes, hopefully Tattoo Man is the only sadist among an otherwise remarkable staff. Thank you for being one of my many warriors, Petrea. Ditto, Beverly.