Radiation Tan - Not the look I was going for!

Following my chemo, I was sent for radiation. They really wanted to make sure I was done with the cancer and make sure I wasn't going to get it again. So,here is how it goes.

Just before my 5th chemo treatment
(out of 6), I was sent for a consult with the radiation specialist. This is where he outlined what was going to happen and the possible dangers attached to radiation. A few that stand out: it will make my bones fragile and I could break a rib just by coughing; it could also give me lung cancer; heart problems, but those are more common when breast cancer is on the left; and of course I could wind up with the ever popular frozen shoulder. Having been through the frozen shoulder twice (once for each shoulder) I was really determined to not have that happen again - particularly as my right shoulder still didn't have full mobility!

Alright, so now he has scared me enough that I am beginning to have second thoughts about this whole treatment course. Of course, I managed to wise up and use my little brain and realized that he was giving me the worst case scenario. Then I went through the whole, yes, well, the last several years of my life have been worst case scenarios - if it weren't for bad luck I wouldn't have any luck at all! Then I figured, well, what's the worst that could happen? I could die? I am not afraid of dying, I have no kids, I have done a lot, I could do more, but, if it is my time, so be it. Besides I felt that somehow, my luck was due to change.

The next step, was to tattoo marks on my torso so that they could position me exactly the same every time. Three little dots, very boring for a first tattoo! They ran me through the machine to make sure I wouldn't get stuck or panic or something. No, really it was to figure out the positioning needed and trajectories and other technical stuff, so that they put the radiation where it was needed.

I was then (finally) sent off to Physio Therapy. (I say finally, because I had started to have signs of Lymphoedema which will be another post.) Then I had my last chemo treatment and a wait of 5 weeks before they would start the radiation.

The wait is so that your blood has had a chance to recover from the chemo before they start bombarding you with radiation. Treatments for the radiation were every day Monday through Friday for 5 weeks, 25 in total. During this
time, I was also being wrapped for the lymphoedema every day as well.

The treatments themselves are easy, you take longer to change out of your street clothes into a gown and getting settled in the exact position than the actual treatment. Then of course, getting dressed again.

For breast cancer, you lay on your back with your arms over your head, holding on to little handles. Then the techs shift you around until they think you are in the right spot (and boy, did they get a workout shifting me). They then leave the room and the machine whirs and clicks, then it moves to the second position and whirs and clicks some more and you are done. The staff comes in to move the bed and help you get your fat body upright and you leave. Only once did they have to add a couple of seconds to the treatment and that is really all it was, they moved the machine back to the first position and dosed me again. It had been too short the first time.

I mentioned earlier that my right shoulder was still not completely mobile. Well, this position is the least comfortable position for an arm that has restricted nerves and blood flow. I had to use my left hand to pull my right arm from over
my head.

My skin is very, very fair - pasty you might say. So, I now have a perm-a-tan over my breast. Yes, just the one and under my arm too. In fact it is darker under my arm. As that area so rarely ever sees the light of day, it tanned first and of course went to burn first and peeled first. Of course, being winter, it looked like the negative of a picture of someone that had been in a bikini for the summer.

The staff told me to shower everyday, but avoid soaping the area that was being toasted and of course don't wash off the marks around my tattoos. I was to then put cornstarch on the felt marker so that it would not rub away. They renewed the felt marks everyday, so I put cornstarch into an empty spice jar and would shake some out onto the marks before I got dressed. However, I hadn't rinsed the bottle well enough, so I spent the 5 weeks of radiation smelling like
rosemary. Better than onion I suppose.

Once I started to peel (at about three weeks) they told me what kind of lotion to buy and I started to apply that daily as well. I was very lucky again, as I didn't get the oozing blisters that can happen with radiation. It was just a burn that then peeled and became a tan once all was over with. I was a bit tired during the treatment phase, but it wasn't until after I was done that the exhaustion caught up with me.

Fortunately for me, the Cross Cancer Institute has a volunteer driver program, as last year was the first time in forever that we had snow before Halloween and lots of it. This year, our snow has only just begun a couple of days ago. As an asthmatic, winter and walking do not mix, throw cancer treatments on top of that and well, lets just say, it was a wretched winter for me. Not to mention that I was cold, I couldn't seem to get enough hats and scarves to keep my head warm. Normally during winter, I can get by most days with just earmuffs, but this winter too I can't seem to keep my head warm in spite of having my hair back. Oh well, I guess I will just have hat hair all winter long!

Those are the only photos I have that show the tan and peeling without showing too much else.

Good evening.


Hilary said...

Very gutsy post, Reb. I'm so sorry you had to go through all of that, but very happy that you're here to tell the tale. It must have been a very difficult and frightening time for you.

Frozen shoulder.. ugh. I have had one for about 3+ years now. I'm MUCH better than I was for the first year and a half, but like you said about your own, it's not entirely healed. So about that aspect, I know where you're coming from.

As for the rest.. I can't imagine. Thanks for sharing.

the Bag Lady said...

So is the perma-tan really permanent? And couldn't they have given you little roses instead of just dots? Sheesh!
Good post, sis. And good for you for telling your story - hopefully it will help someone else who is coping with this type of thing.

Reb said...

Hilary, it certainly put a lot of things into perspective and yes, it was a bit of a trying time. My shoulder is still not right, but at least I don't have to hold it over my head anymore ;) Keep doing the exercises that your physio people gave you, it was about the fourth year I all of a sudden realized the first shoulder was better, I could do a full circle - then the other one went. Although I still will wake up with the first shoulder locked up if I have a bad night and wind up sleeping with it above my head, or belly down with it over my head. Don't ask, I am not sure how I do that.

The tan is still there, but it has faded quite a bit. I am waiting to see if it returns in the summer sun, like the tan we accidently gave my face after the first chemo treatment. That one never truly fades and the first sun I get in the spring brings it right back. I did ask about something other than dots, but no go. Thanks Sis.

Leah J.Utas said...

Excellent post, Reb. Good for you for writing about it.
It all sounds like quite an adventure, though not necessarily in the good way.
But you're through it and here today and that's what's important.

Reb said...

Thanks Leah, yes, it was quite an adventure and a learning experience.

Crabby McSlacker said...

That sounds like such an ordeal, but you handled it so well and describe it with no whining at all--hard for me to imagine doing! Thanks so much for sharing that.

I agree, great post.

Reb said...

Crabby, this is from a year later perspective - believe me, I did plenty of whining at the time. I did try not to whine too much and even tried to be cheerful to the staff at the Cross. After all, it is just one of things that needs doing, no point whining to the people trying to help.


Virginia Lee said...

Ah yes, I have tiny tattoo dots from my radiation too, hon. My radiation was in my torso area down in my female bit, or what used to be my female bits, area. Due to my flab, they'd have to reposition me every dang time for the radiation.

I tell you, after dropping trou for 25 radiation treatments, those radiation techs got to know me very well. The freakiest thing was how they'd put a giant rubberband around my ankles to hold my legs in position, a wedge underneath my knees, and then give me a thing in which to place my wrists so my arms wouldn't move, thus causing my flab to jiggle.

The singular most degrading aspect was having my belly fat taped up so I wouldn't end up with too much damage in my fat fold. While degrading, it worked. I had almost no chafing or sensitivity there even after the 25th treatment.

The parts of me that got thoroughly cooked were my lower intestine and my delicate girly bits, including urethra. It was ungodly. I shan't be graphic, but the literature they give you LIES. Perhaps I had a worse time than usual due to the length of my illness before diagnosis, but I never in my life seriously considered suicide before going through radiation therapy and it's aftermath.

Oh, I wasn't allowed to wash my markings either, but they had some waterproof adhesive film that they put over my marks that stayed on incredibly well and amazingly had an adhesive to which I was not allergic, a rarity.

I was blesssed in that I didn't need chemo. If the cancer had penetrated my uterus I would have. It was very close. My surgeon practically cried when he told me about the size of the tumor and the level of cancer in the uterus they found. But somehow, miraculously, there were no stray cells floating about. So no chemo.

I'm sorry I only just got here now, Reb. Just a year ago I was in the midst of my radiation and I really hate thinking about it but it is inevitable. I've been meaning to post about it in my blog, but I haven't. Maybe now, after seeing your brave post, I can.


soap box girl said...

Really heroic, Reb.

My mom had primary peritoneal cancer, but because it was so advanced when they discovered it, she had limited success with chemo, and no radiation treatments were administered.

Thanks for writing about your experiences. You offer so much hope to people who are fighting cancer right now, or are afraid and want to know what to expect when they go in for treatment for the first time.

Reb said...

Virginia Lee, sounds like we were doing radiation at about the same time then. You take your time posting about it, we will be around to read it when you are ready.

Reb said...

Soap Box Girl, thanks for the kind words. Sorry to hear about your mom.