They said it would be the easiest part

radiation-1At first, the most annoying thing about radiation was having to be at my hospital everyday for 21 consecutive days. The burns caused by the radiation were not pleasant, but skin heals. I have to say though that, emotionally, radiation was worse for me than chemo.

I did not cry during my chemo infusions, but I did during radiation treatments. I am not sure if it was related to the fact that I was coming closer to the end of my treatments, and I was just then realizing what I had gone through the previous six months. During the beginning of my cancer mess, I was in a I-have-to-take-care-of-business mode. So there was hardly any time for me to really absorb what was happening to me. Everything moved so quickly and slowly at the same time.

Because I was told that radiation would be the “easiest” part of my treatments, I did not ask anyone I knew to come with me. Each daily appointment was no longer than 30-45 minutes anyway, including the wait. I thought I could handle it juuust fine.

I had already gotten my “simulation” done days before starting my radiation treatments. The radiation team had precisely identified the area on my body that would be radiated. My body was positioned carefully, face down. And I had to remain still. The radiologist put marks — permanent tattoos (dots) — on the breast and surrounding areas to target the treatments. These steps weren’t too bad.

Finally, my scheduled first morning of radiation had arrived. The patients in the waiting room were called quickly, one after the other. Each treatment went fast, adding a level of intensity and urgency to the situation. Eventually, it was my turn. I was asked to get undressed from my waist up and given a robe. They explained the potential side effects from getting radiation, including a secondary cancer. I had to sign the consent forms that stated the hospital was not to be held responsible. (I would find out two years later that my mutated gene, ATM, can be activated by certain amounts of radiation exposure. But my hospital said they would have treated me with radiation regardless.)

Then, I was brought into a room to take photos of my breasts. They also took a picture of my face. I don’t know why they did that. Maybe for identification. In the photo I looked like I was being charged with a crime I did not commit. I found that moment to be quite unpleasant and I wanted it to end as quickly as possible.

I entered the cold room and removed my robe. I positioned myself face down on this really hard and narrow table. I was asked not to move, and eventually was left on my own listening to this melancholy music they played. To the side of me were several brain radiation masks (once you’ve seen one of these, you’ll never forget it). Suddenly, the robotic machine started moving around me. Several people watched me from behind the glass. The invisible laser was hitting different areas of my breast and surrounding areas. I didn’t feel a thing but watching this machine move around me, from one side to the other, made me feel invaded. I also felt isolated. At that moment, I wanted to run away and never come back, but then I remembered I could never run away from cancer. I also remember trying to hold back my tears, and many times I was unsuccessful. Something about that machine shooting an invisible laser, and me not being able to move while being watched by an entire hospital staff staring coldly from behind a window that made me feel subjugated.

After each treatment, I would walk out of the room and see the radiologists performing treatments on other patients. At times it was hard to ignore their computer screens, where different parts of peoples’ bodies were exposed. There were just too many. I felt a sense of guilt, knowing that some of those people probably were worse off than I. It was a very sad scene. But it wasn’t my choice to be there.

And there was something else: on my way out of the office, I would encounter kids sometimes. There I was thinking I was too young to be dealing with cancer (32 years old), and then a child would put things into perspective for me. Of course, there’s no right age to face cancer, but it’s just wrong seeing a child go through this awful experience. They should be playing games. Not doing this.

Towards the end of my radiation treatments, I felt extremely tired, both physically and emotionally. The overwhelming stress I had dealt with for several months was finally catching up with me.

Over the course of this whole thing, each treatment — the surgery, the chemo, the Tamoxifen — has had a different effect on me psychologically, but the radiation days haunt me most. Radiation was a reinforcement of the loss of control I felt – the ‘scientist’ behind the glass, not being able to physically move while being treated, the burns on my skin, and the burns on top of the burns. I could not avoid those 21 consecutive days in order to get the best outcome possible. And everything was against my impulse.

It was over five years ago that I completed my radiation treatments. I still experience pains on the radiated area, which is also a reminder of what I went through. This is part of the collateral damage we deal with, even after surviving a traumatic event such as cancer.  Although I am done with those treatments, I still feel like it isn’t over. Survivorship is difficult, especially when dark memories haunt us.

About thesmallc

I'm Rebeca. I was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 32. But there's more to my story: I am an animal lover. I love to cook. I have a wonderful fiancé who doesn't mind walking my rocky path with me. We currently live in New York. ---------------------------------------- “Those who have a 'why' to live, can bear with almost any 'how'.” ― Viktor E. Frankl
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17 Responses to They said it would be the easiest part

  1. Erica says:

    Ugh! I’m glad I’m not alone. I absolutely hated the radiation treatment! It was awful, I also crying through many sessions. And I now know being burned alive would be the worse death emaginable! Thanks for sharing this. Hugs friend!

    • thesmallc says:

      Erica, I am sorry you had a tough time with radiation. Everything about cancer isn’t pleasant and I am sure everyone’s experience with treatments is different.I really thought chemo would be a lot worse; not saying it was easy of course. I just wish we didn’t have to suffer through this process. xoxo

  2. Jennifer says:

    “During the beginning of my cancer mess, I was in a I-have-to-take-care-of-business mode. So there was hardly any time for me to really absorb what was happening to me. Everything moved so quickly and slowly at the same time.”

    Yes! This is so spot-on. I was the exact same way, and now I’m dealing with this rush of emotions that I haven’t fully dealt with from months ago. It’s so strange how that happens.

    • thesmallc says:

      Jennifer, I think this is very common and it does feel very weird. It is a harsh transition. It doesn’t happen gradually, it sort of hits us hard at some point post-treatments. I wonder if this is somewhat related to the fact that we refuse to know and accept anything about our mortality while we’re healthy, that when we get our first notice, it is too shocking to be able to deal with it. One day at a time, my friend. It’s the only way to do it. xoxo

  3. Pingback: Weekly Round Up | Journeying Beyond Breast Cancer

  4. Lucinda Sanders says:

    I went through chemo and surgery without once throwing up, but I did throw up before radiation after the first week. It seems so easy, but 36 days is not easy. I didn’t have burns ( thank you corn starch baby powder) but I still have pains from the scar tissue. It my seem easy, but bn the easy pet of edition is hard. Oh yes, I was SO tired.

    • thesmallc says:

      Lucinda, I am sorry you threw up during your radiation treatments. That is one side effect I did not experience and one I dislike very much. I hate it so much I avoided eating sometimes during chemo and lost 30 pounds. 36 days is a long time for radiation but I know each person has a unique case. I was able to do less because I received “boosters” which were supposed to be stronger than the regular treatments. And yes, I remember being very tired. I am sorry you went through this but I am glad it’s over. Please stay well. xo

  5. Nancy Buchanan says:

    Wow, very well said — I felt so alone, so invaded, so compliant and hopeful I was doing the right thing; and also so hopeless. My emotional low didn’t hit till after the 7 weeks and it was finally over. . . . and my skin is still so weird. . .. .. trying to stay positive. Kind of like a bad dream. The noise, the smell, the hard cold steel table. . . . just breathe and get through this. I always kept my eyes tightly closed or I knew if I opened them, I would freak out in anxiety. Nancy

    • thesmallc says:

      Nancy, I too experienced multiple emotions simultaneously. I remember I had fluid retention for almost 2 years. I couldn’t sleep on that side. The breast would get swollen all the time. I now feel no sensation on that side and the scar tissue feels weird. I still experience pain. I am sorry you went through this. I wish the recovering process was easier for all of us. Stay well. xo

  6. Marg Brown says:

    Thank you so much for writing. I didn’t do too badly with the radiation, for the first three weeks. Then one day a nurse was walking by and just said hello – I burst into tears. She took me to a private room and we talked for 10 – 15 minutes, while she calmed me down. The radiation therapists were furious that they had set up for me, and couldn’t find me. Yelled at me a bit about how I should have talked to them, not a nurse (the radiation therapists were young and very, very sensitive about being called a technician or not treated with the respect they felt they deserved.) Anyway, from then on I cried every single god awful day. It wasn’t easy.

    • thesmallc says:

      Marg, this entire experience is traumatizing and it often doesn’t hit us until the very end (or post treatments). I am sure for you it was a combination of everything. It felt that way for me. I am glad you had someone who was able to calm you down. Stay well. xo

  7. Susan says:

    Thank you for responding on Marie’s awesome round up (goo.gl/QEmQYr) as I talked about this post. I wrote how I try to keep my personal collateral damage silent because I have too many stage IV friends having so much worse of a time. In a way maybe I do that because this disease has recurred for me in an early stage, and many side effects appeared suspicious and I had the range of tests that were alarming. This causes me intense fear of a distant recurrence that I’ve become almost numb to the amount of things that have happened (broken bones, hormonal side effects, eight breast surgeries from radiation…the list goes on). I have worked so hard creating and keeping a non-profit alive to bring stages 0-4 together, but the truth is, if someone is first diagnosed with early stage (with so many factors of their pathology and staging) it’s too hard for newly diagnosed to hear the truth about how the effects are life long especially when you add possible cocktails of chemo, radiation, hormone therapy, radiation, and surgeries that can go on and on. At that point it’s too much to just get through treatment for them. Then the PTSD can hit after. Someone who is diagnosed originally stage IV and/or goes from early to late stage as 25-30% does, has another mountain of issues and it’s usually so random. I’ve lost so many. But, I think maybe I’m over compensating so I don’t hear the words, “it’s cancer” for a third time. I truly know this is a new normal, and I thank you for getting me to really think about all of this. Yes, soon I will write more. Thanks again for this extremely thought provoking post. ❤️💛❤️

    • thesmallc says:

      Susan, I am very sorry you had to deal with a recurrence. I totally understand where you come from. I sometimes ask myself if I am feeding my fears by questioning all the symptoms I experience. Truth is, once diagnosed, it’s hard to ignore every ache and pain, but I admit, it has gotten a little better — to the point where I don’t call my doctors right away anymore. I’ve found that writing about my fears and trauma has helped with my anxiety. And yes, sometimes I get worried my posts may discourage some newly-diagnosed patients. I am also conscious about those who struggle with stage 4. My blog is about the only place I get to vent and express how I feel. It’s important to bring awareness about the reality of living with this disease. It’s hard to keep a balance when everyone’s case is so different to each other. It’s such a challenging situation. I hope you don’t face this again and that you find some sense of peace. I wish this for all of us. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and for stopping by. I look forward to reading your posts. Stay well. xoxo

  8. Wow I pretty much could have written this one–thank you for summing it up so nicely. Yes, subjugated. “They” say radiation is a breeze compared to chemo, but I just found that to not be true. I’ve wondered why–I’ve never placed high value on the chitty chatty infusion sessions, but there was something off-putting about the factory, assembly line way radiation treatment is conducted that just made it so much worse. Ugh. I don’t like thinking about it. xo

    • thesmallc says:

      I avoid thinking about those radiation days, but I felt the need to write about it to let it rest. I feel better now that I did. I have to say, I am surprised so many patients have had similar experiences. I’ve always heard radiation is the “easy” part of treatments. Well, not for us! Hoping we never have to face this again. xo

  9. bethgainer says:

    Rebecca,

    I’m so sad that you went through all this hell. And seeing the occasional child having to go through this is horrible. I hear you, and know that you are validated.

    I was also told radiation was the easiest part. I had radiation simultaneously with chemo and both at the same time did a number on me physically and psychologically. Medical professionals never told me how damaging radiation could be. But there is a lot that medical personnel don’t tell you. My experience with radiation was more positive in the sense that the staff made me feel loved. When radiation ended, I had a major fallout because I no longer had the support of the radiation staff and oncologist. I’m going to write a post on this at some time.

    • thesmallc says:

      Beth, I cannot imagine going through both chemo and radiation at the same time. I remember hearing this was another approach oncologists take, but it was hard for me to grasp because technically, your immune system can weaken during chemo making the healing process more challenging (such as radiation burns?). It must have been so overwhelming for you physically and mentally. I am sorry you went through this, my friend. My radiation experience was a bit cold but I liked the nurse a lot. And my doctor was very competent so that gave me hope. But still, this experience was overwhelming. I have to say writing about this has helped. I hope you do the same. I look forward to reading your post. xo

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