Wednesday, May 1, 2013

All about Radiation

With only 11 treatments in, I don't really consider myself a radiation expert yet.  I still find myself asking questions at each treatment.  But, I am a pretty inquisitive person, so I will probably always have questions.  Nonetheless, I feel ready to write a post about what radiation is like so far.

When I am called back for my appointment, I head back to the dressing area and remove all clothing from my waste up and put a gown on.  Then, I move to the table and lay down on the mold they created for me during my simulation appointment.
Here is my mold.  I lay down and raise my left arm and place into the molded area. 

Here are all of the molds form various patients hanging in the room.
The mold makes sure I am in the same exact position each time.  They line me up into the same exact position using the marks they placed on me during the CT simulation and the laser beams.  The laser beams come from lasers which are on the walls on each side of me and directly above me in the ceiling. The 4 marks (above and below my left chest area and on my right and left side) on my body that they use to line me up are covered in tape, so that they do not come off in the shower.

The radiation machine

The machine rotates all around me throughout the treatment session, in order to radiate various areas that were cancerous prior to beginning chemotherapy.  At times, they place contraptions on the head of the machine in order to really target the treatment to small, specific areas (like my internal mammary nodes, in my sternum area).  I take a deep breath and hold it before they begin radiation treatments for each of the areas.  This is so that my chest wall is as far away as possible from my heart.  I definitely don't want my heart to get any of the radiation.  My lungs will get a little bit of radiation, but they try to be as careful as possible.  The length of time I am required to hold my breath varies, depending on the area being treated.  It seems like the times I have to hold my breath the longest are when they are treating the supraclavicular nodes and the internal mammary nodes.  Those breath holds are for at least 25 seconds.  Some of the other breath holds are only for a few seconds.  I should be able to hold my breath under water for a pretty long time after all of this.

While the radiation is being applied, I hear a loud, high-pitch buzz sound.  Every other session, a cold, skin/gel-like material, called bolus, is placed on top of my chest.  The bolus helps to bring the concentrated radiation closer to my skin, instead of deeper (like on the other days).  With breast cancer patients who have undergone mastectomy, the area on the breast closest to the skin is the most important to radiate, since the breast tissue has been removed.  The bolus material teases the machine into thinking it is part of my body, which is why the radiation doesn't penetrate as deep on the days bolus is placed atop my chest.. 

In total, I am in the treatment room for about 20 minutes.  The radiation process itself is really pretty simple.  The most annoying part is that my left arm falls asleep during the treatment.  Also, my skin is beginning to become a bit sensitive.  I am applying Aquaphor (which is petroleum jelly-like) and Miaderm (a radiation-specific lotion) about 4 times per day to help keep my skin moisturized.  I am hoping and praying that my skin doesn't suffer too much from the treatment. The most uncomfortable thing right now is when I have to wear a seatbelt over the left chest area (like when I am driving).  Also, under my left arm is currently the most irritated area.  So, clothing that rubs against that skin is pretty uncomfortable.

The treatment team for radiation is awesome! They are friendly, quick, knowledgeable, and answer any question that I have very happily.  The radiation oncologist is super-cool also.  She feeds my inquisitive mind with lots of information, which I love!  On the first day of treatment, she even brought me back to her office and showed me the CT images, as well as the field set-up.  This really put my mind at ease, because I could see just how deep the fields were set up to penetrate.  I know my heart is safe from the radiation beams.  She is a mom too.  I believe she has 4 or 5 children, with the youngest being 6 months.  And, she is about my age, so I can completely relate to her and vice versa.

For those who are interested in learning more about radiation:  I found a cool video that another breast cancer patient put together about radiation.  She actually propped her phone camera up in the treatment room and shot a video of herself getting the treatment. So, if you are interested in seeing what the radiation process is like via video, you can watch it in my post below or click here to watch it.

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