My first thought before starting radiation therapy to treat my breast cancer was “how can I allow my body to be bombarded with radiation?” The word radiation glowed luminous green in my head, and although I hoped that it would kill any remaining rogue cancer cells, I knew that certain radiation kills people. I’ve seen the extreme photos of Hiroshima where everything turned to ash. These thoughts crowded my head but I suppressed them.
I didn’t know how I’d cope with a daily schedule of turning up every single day, five days a week for five weeks, while being pleasant to everyone… everyday. The effects of the chemotherapy hadn’t worn off and I still felt awful. What I came to realize during those weeks is that besides the most obvious gain – a better chance at beating my cancer – there were unexpected bonuses that I could take home from the whole experience.
For my cancer type, radiation therapy increases my overall chance of survival by about 10%. My radiation oncologist spent plenty of time in our consultation showing me the results of studies for my type of breast cancer. Perfect! This helped me feel so much better. For my cancer, radiation therapy has better outcomes than the chemotherapy I’d just finished. Since radiation therapy uses light particles, I tried to think of my treatment as light therapy. Light as in life, and NOT going up to the heavenly light!
The next thing I had to grapple with was whether my heart would be damaged by the radiation. My tumour sat right above my heart, and the treatment involves focusing the radiation on the tumour. Well two things saved my heart from damage. Firstly, the physicist, who designed my ‘more complex’ treatment plan with the configuration of radiation beams across my upper body, did an excellent job by bypassing my heart. He said that I’m not the usual patient (yes I keep hearing that) as no one has ever asked to talk to the physicist before. It’s not that I don’t trust people’s words, it is just that I understand better when things are more tangible. I need to see what they are talking about, not just hear it from their mouths. He took the time to go through the plan report in detail, explaining the acronyms and jargon terms for me.
I also had questions that only my care team could answer. Serious questions about radiation that had been bugging me the whole time, but I was too scared to know the truth in case I backed out and didn’t complete my treatment. Questions like “how does the radiation compare with what was experienced in Hiroshima and Nagasaki”, and if the long term side effects would be the same. The team at Icon were happy to explain that unlike radiation from a nuclear reaction, the rays from my radiation treatment precisely targeted my cancer cells, passing right through my body rather than lingering. On the back of my shoulder there is a dark patch of skin where the radiation beams exited my body, away from my organs and bones. This is amazing technology. My bones are quite intact and my heart has been protected through a special technique called Deep Inspiration Breath Hold (DIBH).
To protect my heart using DIBH, I needed to stay perfectly still and hold my breath to keep my heart away from the radiation beams. Perfecting this technique became my goal. Thanks to the staff who reassured me all the way through the process, I began to look forward to holding my breath twelve times each day for the 80 second period it took to radiate me. These long breaths could have been broken into 40 seconds instead, but that meant more time taken up. At first I tried to imagine that I was surfing and being held underwater, but this backfired because the reality is if you panic you can drown. Instead, I imagined I was diving down to a deep coral reef using a snorkel, which stretched time into 80 seconds. Using this visual imagery relaxed me and kept my heart rate down, allowing me to hold my breath for the duration of the treatment, sometimes with air to spare. This breath-holding technique is now something I use while surfing, and I’ve even taught my daughter my technique so she has more confidence in the water. I wasn’t expecting that!
Another bonus I didn’t expect was becoming comfy in my own skin… without boobs… fast. My mastectomy had been nine months earlier and I no longer had any cleavage. I thought I had come to terms with losing the ‘girls’ but actually, I hadn’t. My mind was still catching up with the reality of losing what felt like part of my femininity. During my radiation therapy, my skin was so sensitive that I couldn’t wear any restrictive clothing like bras or synthetic materials. At first I felt resentful that I couldn’t wear my padded bras. However it was summer and it was hot, so I ended up wearing skimpy tops like halter necks, and before long I felt normal again even without my ‘fake boobs’. Now six months on I remain equally comfortable wearing or not wearing cleavage. Without undergoing the radiation therapy I doubt I could have reached this mindset so fast.