At 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.