How does radiation work and what can I expect?
How Radiation Works: Radiotherapy (radiation) depends upon the rapid multiplication of cancer cells. The most common type of radiation therapy is External Beam Radiation. The potentially dangerous machines bombard the selected area with high-energy rays to destroy any remaining breast cancer cells in the breast, chest wall, or axilla (underarm), whilst leaving the slower developing normal cells relatively unscathed.
Apart from the awkward position I had to maintain on the metal bed, the actual treatment resembled a normal X-ray. The placement was very awkward, and because it was only a couple of weeks since my surgery, it was also painful. Often chemo is given first, and the radiation follows. Looking back, I think that would have been preferable as my scar would have healed and I would have regained movement to my arm and shoulder. Without a doubt, holding my arm in position was the worst part of the actual time under the machines.
As I lay on my back, the technician guided my damaged arm up until my hand gripped a handle above and behind my head. For the first week or so, this was agony, and any attempt to ease my position brought me a scolding. I had to lie in that position for what seemed like hours, although it was actually only a few minutes. That First Treatment: When it came to the first treatment, the technicians warned me I might experience a slight tingling, but I felt nothing.
The two girls who were working with me left the room, swinging the huge lead door closed. As I heard it clank shut, my heart seemed to leap within me. I wanted to yell, “Come back! Don’t leave me!” I don’t think I have ever felt so terrified as I was that day. I only learned several days later that they were monitoring me all the time on a screen. I wish I’d known that on the first day.
The machines started a process of groaning and clicking. They changed position as they targeted different parts of my chest and underarm. I gritted my teeth and stared at the ceiling, visualising the face of Jesus smiling down on me. Remembering the injunction to praise in all situations, I started to sing . . . “Wherever I am, I’ll praise You . . . ” After a couple of minutes, I heard the huge lead door swing open.
The two girls rushed in and made some adjustments to the machinery. “Please, may I just rest my arm?” I begged. “Absolutely not!” one snapped back. “Don’t even think of moving!” They both raced from the room and I returned to singing, trying to ignore the cramp-like pain that gripped my arm.
The Treatment Continues: Over the next nine weeks, Monday to Friday, I presented myself for a repeat treatment at the same time. Gradually my arm got used to the traumatic stretch to reach the handle, until I was able to do it without much discomfort. How much easier it would have been if I’d had the chemo first! I was extremely fortunate.
Despite having extremely fair skin (I’m a redhead) I didn’t burn badly. I only had a slight tinge of pink over the breast area which ended with a clear line down the middle of my chest. Yet the effects of radiation linger on. As a fifteen-year survivor, I still have to take special care when I go into the sun. If I stand or walk in the African sunshine for any length of time, the left side of my back starts to burn through my shirt. As long as I put sunscreen on under my top, I’m fine, but I often forget. Then I need to keep out of the sun.
I don’t allow my hairdresser to blow-dry my hair, because if the hot air comes near my collar bone or shoulder blade on that side, it feels as if it’s burning. But was it worth it? Absolutely. And did I follow all their instructions, even though at times they seemed over the top? You bet!