Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Radiation - A Piece of Cake??

Me. I survived.

Radiation is easy.

After enduring five months of chemotherapy and the pain and debilitation of a bilateral mastectomy, radiation is supposed to be a piece of cake. This phase of cancer treatment is often said to be the easiest of The Big Three.

I mean, well…it will cause a little fatigue. And they are aiming levels of radiation long considered dangerous for human beings at my bare chest. And the doctor did tell me that she does intend to burn my skin to the point of blistering to properly treat the area. And I am pretty certain my heart and lungs are both located inside my chest. Those are kind of important organs for your everyday, basic quality of life. Did I mention the radiation levels long-considered unsafe for human consumption?

But I will keep my hair! So there is that.

I had my first radiation session yesterday. I picked my mom up at the airport at midnight the night before. After dropping her off safely at home, I found myself unable to go to sleep. My brain was stuck in cancer mode. For those of you not familiar with cancer mode, it goes a little something like this:

Tomorrow is my first radiation. I hope it will kill all the cancer and keep it from coming back. But what if it doesn’t? What if it comes back in my bones? My knee hurt all last week. I thought it was just my normal every-six-months flair up. But what if that was bone cancer? And I peed in my pants this morning when I did not make it the bathroom in time. What if that was bladder cancer? I should buy some new underwear. Just to have on hand. Pretty undies. I like the colorful, comfortable ones from Lane Bryant. But what if I lose weight? I want to lose weight. I need to lose weight. Then I would need skinny underwear. But losing weight is so hard for me. Why is it so hard? Maybe I have adrenal cancer? Maybe I am just fluffy and not fat. I don’t really eat that much. Really. McDonalds this morning doesn’t count. Neither does the large turtle mocha from Caribou. I should be really be even fatter than I am. What if I have stomach cancer?

That, my friends, is the brain’s cancer mode. Unsurprisingly, I was up all night brain-blathering, so I did not get any sleep at all. Lack of sleep combined with a touch of claustrophobia and a healthy dose of fear of drowning/being buried alive led to a memorable and altogether miserable first radiation treatment.

Last week when I was tested and scanned and measured for radiation, I was told that women receiving radiation for breast cancer fall into two groups. The first group is comprised of women whose heart does not move at all when they inhale deeply. These women are allowed to breath normally during radiation. The second group is comprised of women whose heart shifts slightly to the right and away from the chest wall when they inhale deeply. These women are asked to hold their breath during radiation, allowing the heart to move completely out of the radiation field.

Guess which group I fall into?

That’s right! I am one of the lucky few who are able to hold their breath and thereby shift their hearts right out of the radiation field. Yay! No heart damage! Never mind that 1.) Fat girls are generally not incredibly talented at holding their breath – particularly when lying flat on their backs, and 2.) I have an unnaturally robust fear of drowning and/or being buried alive.

So I did not start radiation in a very good mental place – even in the waiting room. After working myself up to a nervous pacing around the room, I was finally led back to a dim room full of machines and asked to lie down on a flat table that was hard as marble and barely as wide as my hips. My head and left arm went into a (hard) mold that was made specifically for me. My head was turned away from my chest at a weird angle, and my left arm was resting above my head. My right hand had to be tucked under my arse so my arm would not dangle precariously from the narrow table. It almost instantly fell asleep, of course. Big machines whirred above me and to the left and right of me. (Move along, people! No claustrophobia triggers here!) A small box was taped to my big, white belly so the technicians could watch my breathing.

Not me. But this is what the machine looks like.
I was asked repeatedly to take a deep breath and hold it. I am really, really bad at holding my breath. I mean, like pathetically bad. Ten seconds is about all I can muster at the best of times. Tired and in the throes of a claustrophobic conniption, I could barely muster seven. By the time my radiation was finished, I had worked myself up into a full-blown tizzy. My face was white as a ghost. I felt like I was going to vomit on the radiation machine (which I am sure would have resulted in a fairly hefty bill for damages). I was dizzy and hyperventilating. I wanted nothing more than to rush to the toilet in the dressing room (they have a separate dressing area for women who are receiving radiation to their chests) and hurl.

But no…I see the doctor on Tuesdays.

I was taken to an exam room to meet with the doctor even though it was only my first treatment. The nurse obviously thought I was having a “spell” of some sort – perhaps of a psychiatric nature. She quickly took my blood pressure (which happened to be 145 over 95 at the time - Yowza!) without taking her eyes off me. I think she truly expected my head to start spinning and pea soup to fly across the room. I am sure she was plotting her escape. The nurse quickly rushed off to get me some water and saltines, and then fled the room. 

When my doctor came in, I had managed to get control of my hyperventilation, but I was still pale and shaky. The doctor tried to make me feel better by saying, “This sometimes happens.” Her eyes, however, clearly said, “WTF is wrong with this psycho chick??” She wrote me a prescription for Ativan (I had run out during chemo) and encouraged me to take it. I apologized profusely for my over-reaction, and even started crying in front of the doctor. What the hell?? I don’t cry in public, as a general rule. Actually, I rarely cry if at all avoidable. So at this point, my own eyes were clearly saying, “WTF is wrong with this psycho chick??” It was somewhat comforting that my doctor and I were on the same page.

After being dismissed from the exam room, teary-eyed, I wobbled to the women’s dressing room, locked myself in one of the changing rooms, and laid on the padded changing bench for at least 10 minutes – possibly 15 – before I could muster the mental capacity needed to put my t-shirt and sweater back on.

After that, I called Ruanita from the parking lot and bawled. I had insisted that she did not need to come with me because radiation “is a piece of cake.” Needless to say, calling her crying might not have been the best idea. Now she fully intends to accompany me to every single radiation treatment I have every day for the next six and a half weeks. Should be fun.

This morning, I took two Ativan before heading to the hospital for my radiation treatment. The treatment went much smoother today. I did not hyperventilate. I did not cry. I did not vomit. Holding my breath for the required time was not necessarily any easier, but I was much more relaxed about the whole thing. We were in and out in no time at all.

Moral of the story: Shannon should be highly medicated, not just for medical procedures, but as a general, everyday rule to live by. 


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