The Shining Moment of radiation for me was that it was the LAST part of my treatment regimen. Yippeeee-do!
Why did I have to have radiation, you ask? (Heaven knows I asked!)
Let’s back up for a second. Please allow me to give you an analogy of the relationship between breast cancer cells (described to me by a Radiation Oncologist):
Imagine being at a ginormous family reunion, the kind were there are great aunts & 3rd cousins – some even once removed (I still don’t really understand what that means). Ok. Got the image? Tons of people, some just barely related.
This is how some of the cells of breast cancer are related – just barely. All of the cells are NOT the same. Some of the cells are 3rd cousins once removed. Shocker, right? I have to tell you that I thought one breast cancer cell was just like the other. Not the case.
Now, onto the treatment explanation. I was told to think about breast cancer as a Forest Fire (a description which actually isn’t too far off. I’ve certainly wanted to evacuate my body on one occasion or another since diagnosis!).
In eliminating a forest fire, there are firemen (& women), police, search and rescue, etc. who play specific rolls.
OK, now, let’s tie it all in together.
Because one breast cancer cell is not like every other, the treatment modalities for breast cancer are multifaceted, just as they are in eliminating a forest fire. Surgery, chemotherapy and radiation all serve different rolls.
The purpose of radiation for me was to decrease my risk that breast cancer would return in the area in which it began. Because of my young age of 42 (when diagnosed) and the fact that I had a tumor 1.9 cm, my treatment plan warranted a full court press, including the “search and rescue” radiation team.
If I chose not to have radiation, the risk that this breast cancer will come back (yes, we have to address the big “R” for recurrence) was approximately 18%. That’s a percentage that I was NOT willing to take. So, I got nuked, and my risk for recurrence went down to 3-4%. My preference would be a 0%; however, the lower numbers are so – oh so – much better than the higher numbers!
Wondering how radiation works? It uses high-energy beams to kill cancer cells by causing the production of “free radicals”. This process changes the DNA of the cancer cells and prevents them from reproducing. The cancer cells die when they can no longer multiply and the body naturally eliminates them.
The good news is that healthy tissues are spared the effects of radiation because after treatment is over, they can repair the DNA changes unlike the cancer cell. In addition, normal tissues are shielded as much as possible while targeting the radiation to the cancer site.
When moving from chemotherapy to radiation, the primary doctor changes from a Medical Oncologist to a Radiation Oncologist (i.e., a cancer doctor who only does radiation).
Now there are plenty of possible side effects:
- Fatigue (already had plenty of that!)
- Dryness, irritation and peeling of the skin within the treated area-particularly under the breast and underarm
- Increased pigmentation or darkening of skin within the treatment area
- Temporary hair loss in the radiation field (couldn’t lose anymore since I was already bald-bald-bald!)
- Soreness or slight swelling to the treated breast and/or arm
- Possible dry cough
I fully anticipated (based on my track record and my medical record that is the width of 3 bricks stacked on top of one another) having one if not all of the side effects. Guess what? I was right. Yup, I had them all.
This is not to say that I turned a corner and was gloom and doom. On the contrary. By now, you know my philosophy is:
Hope for the best, prepare for the worst.
My radiation oncologist said that, because of my extraordinarily high sensitivity to surgery and chemo, she fully expected me to have all of the side effects and planned to stay all over me to prevent them…and if not prevent, then reduce the intensity of them. How’s that for a Shining Moment? To know that I was closely monitored and quickly treated gave me a tremendous peace of mind.
Another big arse Shining Moment here was that I did NOT – I repeat: I did NOT have to have any more crazy-insomnia inducing steroids.
Additionally, I did NOT – I repeat: I did NOT have any nausea from radiation. Those two NON-side effects alone were enough to make me jump – no, leap! – for JOY!
Now this IS radiation. And radiation is NOT good for us in general. In fact, to even get an x-ray of my teeth I have to wear a leaded vest. However, my attitude was, if it kills any potential errant breast cancer cells, then great. Fantastic.
I had 36 treatments. Radiation happened 5 days per week: Monday – Friday for a total of 7 weeks, plus one day. The weekend permitted the recovery of normal cells between radiation treatments.
Poisons and medicine are oftentimes the same substance given with different intents.
~Peter Mere Latham