After I had healed from surgery, I was ready for radiation.
Ok - almost ready. I showed up for my first appointment, the one where they run you through the CT scanner to map your body, with my drain still in. Um...turns out they can't map you with a drain inserted in your body. Once the drain comes out of your body, your topography will be different. I wish someone had told us that! We all had a good laugh, though! :-) And Jon and I got to watch the hokey, in-house informational video of what to expect during mapping and treatment.(I say hokey with love!)
A week or so later, the drain was removed (my home care nurse pulled it out - ick), and we returned to the Cancer Agency to get mapped. Going in the CT wasn't as scary as I thought it would be (I'm pretty claustrophobic). The staff working with me were really kind and gentle. I received the first two tattoos of the three I have (I think there's only three). A student got to do one of them and, well, let's just say I forgive her because she had to learn on someone (it's pretty big - think mole rather than freckle). Then we went away for a week or so to let the team map my body.
I received my radiation over 5 1/2 weeks. I understand that in the States, it is not unusual to have radiation for 8 weeks. I don't know if our system here in Canada has a different protocol, if dosages are different, or what. But I can tell you that 5 1/2 weeks was enough for me. After the first two weeks, I was pretty tired. But it was mostly the trip into town that was doing it. I was lucky enough to have great taxi drivers, my dad mostly. Sometimes my father-in-law, sometimes my mother-in-law, sometimes my husband. Half an hour into Vancouver from my home in Richmond, half an hour back. Other times, I took the bus and train. Those days it was about an hour into town and an hour home. When the actual radiation procedure only takes 10 to 15 minutes, it gets a little draining. I used to live a five minute walk from the Vancouver Cancer Agency - boy did I get nostalgic for that tiny commute!
The process of radiation was very simple and not intimidating at all. I arrived, dropped off my appointment card in the basket on the desk, changed out of all my clothes from the waist up, put on a cotton gown and waited to be called in. I was (almost) always offered a warm blanket before being escorted into the dimly lit room by one of a seemingly endless supply of friendly technicians. I positioned myself on the bed and raised my hands over my head to grasp two handles. Then I did nothing. While I made myself as heavy as possible, the technicians rolled and manoeuvred me into position and set the coordinates on the machine. Then they left the room and I got zapped. The radiation is delivered in a series of zaps, I think I got 4 or 5. After each zap, one of the technicians would come into the room, check to make sure I was still in the right position, and remind me to be still. At every other appointment, a bolus was applied to my chest to help concentrate radiation on my skin so that it too was treated. A bolus looks and feels sort of like a heavy sheet of bubble wrap. When the day's treatment was over, I would thank the technicians get changed and be on my way. Easy!
Once a week, I was seen by a radiation oncologist, either the one who was managing my care or the one that was on shift. Mostly, they were checking to ensure my skin was holding up. After about two weeks, I was pink. By the third week, I was starting to look quite raw. I was instructed before I began radiation to moisturize several times a day with a good quality water-based moisturizer (they recommended Lubriderm). While I was doing this, my skin was still degrading quickly. So I was given a prescription for hydrocortisone cream to apply daily as well. I am sure it helped but by the end of treatment I was a mess - and it continued to get worse for about a week. I was peeling like I had had a very bad sunburn, but the skin peeling off looked almost black. The area hurt to touch and wearing clothes was unpleasant. But, bit by bit it improved and by the time I went in for my follow up a month later, my radiation oncologist was very surprised by how well my skin had bounced back.
One last word - the people who looked after me at the BC Cancer Agency were remarkable. To a person, they were warm, friendly, gentle and respectful. They remembered what I was doing over the weekends and kept track of my boys' ages and interests. They welcomed my boys into the radiation room so I could dispel some of their fears about my treatment. They cracked jokes and laughed at my lame ones. Most of all, they treated me like I was a person who was getting better rather than a patient who was sick. That difference means the world to someone who is frightened.