Planning for Radiation

Today was my planning session for radiation treatment.

I was booked for nine o’clock and was pleasantly surprised when someone came and got me around five past nine. Most medical appointments require at least half an hour of sitting around.

The first part involved three extremely cheerful young people (Wendy, Scott and Melissa) positioning me in something that’s a bit like a bean bag and then extracting the air from it so it holds its shape. It didn’t take more than about ten minutes but sitting there naked from the waist up makes time go so slowly. The resulting piece of sculpture becomes my personal brace for future treatments. It will help them to accurately target the radiation.

Then it’s next door to the imaging centre where there’s a thirty minute wait. Ah yes, that’s more like it.

The second part involved more laying about without anything on my top half while Scott and Wendy measured me with a ruler, drew on me with a marker pen, stuck little markers on me and then sent me backwards and forwards through an imaging machine. Finally I had four tiny dots of tattoo ink injected at strategic points around my chest by Scott. (“Yes, I can do dolphins but you’ll need to use your imagination to see them.”)

I’ve come home with a sheet of information about the treatment and a little card to scan every time I visit, which will be every day for six weeks starting the week after next.

The whole experience was oddly traumatic. Is it possible for technicians to be too cheerful? I love cheerful, but I think when you’re having a humiliating or embarrassing medical procedure you want the sort of cheerful that says ‘I care about your privacy and comfort and I’ll do the best I can to minimise the impact of this procedure for you.’

I don’t mean to be unkind to Scott and Wendy. They really do seem like lovely, caring people. From my perspective I would prefer they dialled it back a bit, and went for ‘connection’ rather than ‘fun’. Ask me a few questions about how I’m travelling. Give me some indication that you’re interested in me and my health and that I’m not just the next person to be processed. Recognise that there is no element of fun in this procedure for me. 

The teams at the Mater hospital are better at this. A lot of it seems a bit pointless, like holding up a sheet while you position yourself and then uncovering your chest anyway, but when you don’t get this kind of courtesy you miss it.

It’s not helpful for staff to tell me they look at women’s breasts all day. Frankly, I’m not that concerned with your comfort right now. I know it’s all common place to you but please understand that I don’t get my breasts out for strangers every day so the frequency with which you look at them is irrelevant to me. I’m embarrassed and coping by pretending not to care. Please cover me up as much as possible and only uncover me when you really have to. It helps.

Can you also explain the procedure to me? And do it before you do anything? It helps me if I know what to expect. Talk to me like I’m a young person interested in joining your profession. I’m not simple. Fortunately I’d done a fair bit of reading on what was involved so I knew what to expect, but this wasn’t because I was sent anything from the clinic. That would have been nice. Even some information about the procedure on your website would help. Yes, it’s an effort to put it together but once it’s up there, anyone can look at it.

While we’re on the subject of managing expectations, please know that if you say to me, “Now you just need to head up stairs and we’ll meet you there,” I will assume you mean that you will meet me there in a few minutes, not forty five minutes. If you know there’s going to be a delay then please tell me, and give me the option to get a cup of coffee or go for a walk.

I also don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect marker pen to be wiped off me before I get dressed. Coming home to find black marks all over the inside of my bra and shirt was not pleasant. It also gave me some unwelcome aggravation. I thought I’d somehow wiped off one of the tattoo marks but it was only marker pen.

Perhaps I’m over sensitive but I just found the whole process a bit overwhelming. I felt processed. The card they gave me with my own personal bar code didn’t help, even though I understand why this system is a good idea.

My father had radiation therapy when he was dying of cancer. It was a long time ago and the technology is much better now, but it’s stirring up the mud at the bottom of my pool of memories.  I know this will also be hard for my lovely Mum. Not again!

Perhaps I found the day so difficult because I was in a bit of pain this week. My options include the after effects of chemotherapy, an accumulation of minor injuries and/or the return of the fibromyalgia that plagued me before I was diagnosed with cancer. I want to be doing more and feeling better. To my mind I am now cancer free. Radiation is the last phase of treatment and it’s all about mopping up and stray cancer cells and helping to improve my survival odds.

Maybe that’s it. I’m cancer free but not treatment free. It’s now over eight months since I was diagnosed and I’ve still got six weeks of treatment. It must be difficult for people working in radiation. By the time most breast cancer patients see them we’ve already had surgery and chemotherapy. Six weeks of daily treatment with weekends off for good behaviour feels like overkill.

But you can’t over kill cancer.

I came home after it all and had a nap. When I sat down at my computer a tiny bird came and sat on one of the chairs just outside the window. He’s been coming every day for several weeks now. He just sits there. I watch him. He watches me. He’s genuinely cheerful. I put some bread out for him today and he looked at me with his head turned sideways. He didn’t eat the bread.

I went outside and walked around the garden. I noticed what was surviving and what was struggling with the lack of a good rain. I’m already looking forward to Autumn. We have tank water so the garden has to survive on rain. Every summer sees some losses. It’s also a lesson in how resilient a garden can be when it isn’t watered. Plants you thought were fragile turn out to be tough. Spaces created by the death of one plant are colonised by another. No matter how harsh the summer, the seasons change, Autumn comes and the garden recovers.

My eyebrows are back. I now have enough hair that I just look like one of those really cool older women that wears her hair really short. (It’s just occurred to me that many of them may also be recovering from chemotherapy.) I still only have a few hairs on my legs but the rest of me is sprouting hair like fresh soil sprouts grass seed. I am astounded at the resilience of my body. Months of toxic chemicals through the blood and within weeks of stopping my body pushes back.

Autumn is coming.

The wound from my surgery has healed well. There’s very little puckering or distortion. In a singlet, without a bra, you wouldn’t know I’d had breast surgery. I’m not planning on wearing that look in public. I just want to acknowledge the skill of my surgeon and let everyone know that breast surgery does not always equal disfigurement. Modern breast surgery includes much more consideration of how you’ll look.

I’m still dealing with the weight gain caused by the steroids and the peripheral neuropathy caused by the paclitxel, but it’s still early days. The night sweats seem to be lessening and I’m down to only one or two hot flushes during the day. I’m feeling strong and ready for the final push.

Bring on the radiotherapy. The sooner it starts, the sooner it ends.

And Autumn is coming.

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