Wearing a neon pink wig and a bright pink sweater, I walked into the office of Chesapeake and Potomac Regional Cancer Center on Wednesday, Dec.15, 2010 for my final radiation treatment for breast cancer.
My appointment was for 3:30 p.m. When I walked in at 3:15 p.m., the waiting room was full of patients. Usually, there are only one or two other people waiting for treatment when I walk in. The receptionist told me that the radiation machine was not working properly and the technician was on his way, but my procedure would be delayed. Really? On my last day? Give me a break!
My husband and I had dinner reservations for that night to celebrate the end of radiation. It had been quite a journey from that day near the end of July when I discovered the lump in my left breast to this day.
I underwent two breast surgeries to remove the dreaded lump and some lymph nodes to check for the possibility of the disease spreading to other body parts; various scans of my bones, organs, breasts, and brain which required contrasting dyes, radioactive dyes, and laying inside claustrophobic tubes; two types of genetic tests; countless blood draws; and a little problem that was discovered with my liver. I was anxious to finish this part of my journey.
The highlight of this long awaited day was the reaction I got from the other patients and the staff members. Every single person at the center grinned or laughed out loud when they saw me.
After all, I was quite a sight! It brought me extreme pleasure to be able to bring some laughter and a moment of lightheartedness to the other patients, some of whom I had never met and others whom I had never seen smile during the six weeks that I was undergoing treatment. The mood in the waiting room instantly changed when I sat down.
I was finally called in for my treatment. I changed into my hospital gown and proceeded into the treatment room. My wig caused the three staff members working with me to laugh. They took a picture of me standing in front of the radiation machine.
At last, I got on the table, got zapped, and I was done. At 5:06 p.m., I was cancer-free and a proud breast cancer survivor!
My six weeks of radiation (five days a week for six weeks) were not too difficult. The treatment involved getting a few pinpoint-sized tattoos that helped the technicians line up the machine each day.
I laid on a movable table and got into a prescribed position (my right hand rested under my right butt cheek, my left arm rested in a “cradle” at a high, out-of-the-way position to allow for the radiation beam to hit my breast at the correct angle while my head was turned toward the right wall of the room).
Radiation itself does not hurt at all. It is just like getting an x-ray at the doctor’s office. However, instead of getting a one-second “zap” of radiation, for the first five weeks, my treatment involved getting two 20-second “zaps” while the machine was in one position, then it moved to a second position and I got two more 20-second “zaps.”
For the last week of radiation, I got a few more pinpoint tattoos because they had to line up the machine differently. For the last five days, I got one 40-second zap directed at the surgical site.
The side effects from radiation were not too bad. I started getting a nice suntan the second week of treatment, but by the end it turned into a bad sunburn that covered my entire breast to my left underarm.
My skin got very dry and rough (and then it started peeling), and was sensitive to the touch. I experienced significant (for me!) fatigue. I got home from treatment each day, took a nap before dinner and was in bed before 8:00 p.m.
At the time of this writing, my tan is almost gone, my skin has returned to normal, and I am almost back to my normal energy level. The good news is I have not had to shave my left underarm for weeks, thanks to radiation!
Friends, colleagues, and family members went the extra mile for me and my family during those six weeks. People volunteered to drive me to and from radiation and prepared meals for us during the week. I am so grateful to everyone for those kindnesses!
I recently started taking Tamoxifen, a hormone therapy medication that blocks the effects of estrogen in the breast (it is not the same as hormone replacement therapy used in association with menopause).
I will have to take this for the next five years to reduce the likelihood of recurrence. Side effects include fatigue, increased intensity and frequency of hot flashes (TRUE!), possible hair loss, clots, headaches, nausea, skin rashes, and vision changes.
Because of some liver problems that were discovered as result of the blood tests I started getting in September, my liver has to be closely monitored while I am on the medication, which means I will have to have regular blood tests for a while.
And I have to give up alcohol for the foreseeable future. I am scheduled to have a screening mammogram and diagnostic sonogram on Feb. 3. Because I have very dense breast tissue, I must also get sonograms to catch whatever the mammograms may miss. You can bet I will keep up with these diagnostic tests and follow-up appointments with my team of doctors!
I hope you will join me at the College community’s Relay for Life on Saturday, Feb. 26 from 6:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m. in the Michael P. O’Brien Athletic and Recreation Center. This year’s Relay will be a cancer-fighting good time! I can’t wait to walk in the survivor lap! To join a team or donate, please go to http://www.relayforlife.org/smcm.
I am a very fortunate person. I had little “c” because I did not need chemotherapy. My cancer was caught early, thank goodness, and that made all the difference in the world. I am not the same person I was on July 28, 2010. Believe it or not, I am actually glad that I went through this experience.
My life has been forever changed for the better. I have a different perspective on what is important to me. I appreciate my family, colleagues, and friends much more. I know the value of good health and will never again take it for granted.
I am deeply grateful to the College community for your outpouring of support. You kept my spirits up during some scary, dark moments last semester. My personal motto from the musical Pippin has even greater meaning to me now: “Don’t you see I want my life to be something more than long?”
As I said before, cancer is treatable and beatable! Thank you for joining me on this incredible journey!