The radiation phase of my breast cancer treatment is officially behind me!
First, a recap from Instagram:
View this post on Instagram
The 20 sessions (16 to the full area and 4 “boosts” to the area of the tumour) went by fairly quickly and pretty uneventfully – which is a good thing in the cancer world! I applied Glaxal Base cream several times a day as recommended, and kept some in my purse to put on immediately after each treatment, which I certainly think helped to keep my skin in top condition, but there’s only so much you can do – no one can control how much their skin will react and/or burn.
Once a week I saw the radio oncologist, and the first time I did have a question for him: I had heard of women with left side radiation doing special breathing techniques (holding breath or using a special snorkel-type device) but that wasn’t part of my treatment. He really impressed me by taking the time to explain his past practice of using that technique and the current COVID complications, the science behind it (which according to him is not settled anyway – while there are women who have developed heart issues after left side radiation, it’s not necessarily proven to be any greater percentage than in the entire population of women) but then really put my mind at ease by bringing up my scans on the computer and showing me exactly where the radiation was going in my particular case – nowhere near my heart.
There were of course some snags in the process: Day 4 was pushed back a day as the machine was down, and Day 19 was almost the same until they managed to get me an appointment in Oshawa instead. You can’t tell a woman who thinks she’s done radiation tomorrow that she still has another day to go!
One of the highlights was when a radiation therapist I hadn’t met yet said it took her a minute to find the location of my scar – it’s already healed so well – so kudos again to my amazing surgeon. (It really is hard to see where the surgery was done, or to even notice much of a difference between the two sides…but I think I’ll save a detailed breast conversation for my future book…people can pay for information that personal lol!)
Most days I took advantage of my volunteer chauffeurs (my husband on the first and last days, my parents, aunt and a friend) but several times I just drove myself…because that’s what I felt like doing.
And then the final day arrived…
View this post on Instagram
I had imagined that there would be some “ringing of the bell” ceremonial moment to mark the occasion (as I’ve seen many times on social media), but no one suggested it, and if there’s a bell in the radiation unit at PRHC I never saw or heard it. My aunt did surprise me outside the hospital with a little shamrock plant and mini chocolate cream pie to commemorate the occasion!
The radio oncologist warned me that it could take up to two weeks to hit rock bottom in terms of the radiation burns, (he prescribed me fluocinonide to help) and things definitely got worse in the week after radiation. My skin went from a light pink to dark pink/red/dark brown, and started to peel under my arm. The prescription cream seemed to help, but was super sticky and I hated putting a top on over it…so often I didn’t. Thankfully I had the house to myself most days…topless treadmilling would have been much more awkward with an audience. (Don’t worry: I have neither the cup size nor the speed to complicate that situation.)
Fatigue was also an issue throughout and after radiation (with the “springing forward” of clocks in the mix), though I managed to walk every day which I think actually helped with my energy levels.
Complicating matters was the fact that I began my five year run of the hormonal therapy Tamoxifen (my tumour was 100% estrogen positive, so blocking estrogen from any lingering or future breast cancer cells is essential) and it comes with its own side effects, including some insomnia, fatigue, mood swings and hot flashes (I experienced the first one the week after radiation ended and it was a doozy!) …and a huge list of other effects that I haven’t yet experienced. (I’m hoping I will not amass enough material to do a separate post just about Tamoxifen.)
10 days after radiation I excitedly texted my classroom partner to say, “I’m wearing a bra today!!!” because it was the first time in weeks and seemed like a real turning point back towards “normal”. (This of course was a contrast from the several weeks post-surgery when I wore a sports bra 24/7!)
I was happy to resume hot baths (though still keeping the affected area from being immersed as much as possible until further along the healing process), and both shaving and wearing deodorant under my left arm. It’s the little things.
It’s now three weeks post radiation, and there’s a lot of peeling (which looks painful but isn’t) and I’m feeling really good. I’m excitedly planning my return to work (not long now if all goes well) and the final post I have planned to share will outline the mental health side of a cancer diagnosis, treatment and recovery, so keep your eyes open for that one. As always, if you have any questions at all about any “chapter” in my cancer story I would be more than happy to answer – please comment below or reach out through social media.