30 days of sunburn…

Varian radiation therapy machine

(Photo credit: IndyDina with Mr. Wonderful)

In response to those who have asked, I thought I would try and demystify the process of radiotherapy.  Most women who have breast cancer undergo this – also called radiation treament.  It is also used to treat many other types of cancer.  I had my  course of radiotherapy after finishing my primary rounds  of chemotherapy in 2011.  And this is the way it went….

First step in the treatment schedue is a “planning meeting”. The treatment team require this to happen a month before starting radiation, to get all systems in place.

As we were living in Rockhampton at the time, the nearest treatment centre was is Brisbane – some 600 kilometres south. So between cycles 5 and 6 of chemo ( when side effects have built up and are pretty much at there worst!), my husband and I caught the 6.30am flight down to Brisbane and then taxi to the hospital for a 9.30am meeting.

I was there given information about the treatment plan, and taken into a room full of technicians and doctors.  At least eight of them ( I’m sure the cleaner had been invited too) gathered around the skinny bed where I lay topless.  They proceeded to poke and prod my poor old left breast.    They  attatched wires to it and xrays were done. Next marks were made on old boobie, and photos taken. And scans. And it was traced onto a sheet of plastic.  And a few  changes in position and all done again. By now we were all old friends!  Which is just as well, for now came the tattoo gun. Yes two small tattoos were made. I asked for hearts, but artisic flair was missing, and I got dots.  ( I just cheked – yep, still there and just dots).  My first appointment was made for 3 weeks after my final chemo session, and we were able to fly home that afternoon.

So.  The time came for me to begin, with a schedule for 30 shots of radiaton, monday to friday for 6 weeks.  The Linear Accelertors that give the radiation are very busy machines.  There are 4 of them at the Royal Brisbane, and they work all week from 7 am until 10 pm.  This means appointments can be at any time within that frame.   Each patient has all their treatment on the same machine – I was ascribed to LAC 3.  I requested daytime appointments as I would not have transport apart from my own two legs.  Only twice did I  have to walk in the dark.

I was very blesssed to be able to stay in accomodation provided by the Cancer Council.  It was a lovely self contained room with a kitchenette, and at very little cost to me. There was also access to a full equipped kitchen and laundry. The complex provides a wonderful service to many families from all over the state, and I am very grateful.                                                                                               My darling husband was able to be with me for the first few days, before returning to Rocky  for work.  He also returned for the last week, which was lovely. I was pretty weary by then.

Each week day I would walk down to the hospital at the appointed time and wait my turn. When called, I would go around to the change cubicles, where I had a small cubbyhole in which was kept  my stylish purple hospital gown.  This I put on with the opening at the front.  A technician would then lead me into the room with LAC 3.  While I lay on the very hard narrow bed, two technicians  would position the bed and myself  in a very specific placement.  Arm above the head, gown off one side. Then 2 cm left, 9 cm up, head over……etc , until the co ordinates matched those devised in the planning meeting, and the laser beams were positioned exactly.   Once satisfied, the technicians would leave the room to go to the protected room where they could see me and operate the LAC without being exposed to the radiation themselves.  If the readings did not match exactly, they woulld come in again to get the position perfect.   Each time they left the room, an alarm  beeped 16 and a half times.  When all was set, the actually radiation was administered.  This took less than ten minutes, during which the machine whirred and moved around the target and cast it’s deadly beam. The technicians then returned to reposition the bed so that I could make my escape until the next day.     Each week I also had a consultation with a Radiation Oncologist.

The radiation treatment  damages the skin – it’s a bit like getting badly sun burned every day for thirty days.  To minimise damage, I applied creams as advised three times a day.  Moo Goo and a mixture of calendula and comfrey ointment helped a lot,, and I had no blistering or skin breakdown.  I do , however, have a two tone breast, as the skin that was irradiated remains a little darker.  The other major side effect is fatigue.  It takes the body a lot of energy to repair damaged tisssue, leaving a defecit  for other things

All in all, radiation is a lot more pleasant than chemotherapy – the hardest thing was being away from home for six weeks.  I am very grateful for the staff who were unfailingly kind and patient, and the wonderful Cancer Council staff who provided a home away from home for that time.

Phew, this has been a wordy missive.  Hope it has helped you understand what so many people experience along their cancer journey.

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18 thoughts on “30 days of sunburn…

  1. Thanks Carol U r so good at describing & I had memories of the same things that happened during Radiation treatment & I agree the staff are so good & were here in Adelaide too, so i bought them a box of chocolates & it was sad to leave them but good to finish the treatment. I feel for u not having hubby with u each day as I did & am so grateful because going in every day for so long is tiring.
    Keep up the good blogs as U have the gift of writing with clarity & humour.God bless u so much Carol Love Cynthia

    • Thank you Cynthia. Yes, it is an experience many to through, so I hope this will help others have some understanding of the process.
      Bless you!

  2. Sixteen and a half times! I am sure there are other aspects, sounds, smells, sensations, sights that are seared into you along with the radiation. My brother has just finished his treatment for prostate cancer. It took a lot more out of him that he ever imagined.
    Thank you for your updates and posts. I hope they bring some sense of strength to you. As I read, I imagine you facing this treatment.
    I weep for you and smile with you and hug you dear Carol.

    • Yes, Camilla, 16 and a half times! Sometimes the staff had to come in two or three times, and each time…beep.beep.beep and finally end with bee. I couldn’t help but count each time!
      A big hug back!

  3. Thank you so much for sharing & demystifying radiation for me. You are a very brave & strong women Carol

  4. Huge journey Carol. Thanks for opening it up for us all. I have never told people what I went through. Not sure anyone is interested. People don’t like one talking about oneself it seems!!

    I’m glad they only had to cut my cancer out, although it made pregnancy and childbirth a horrific journey for me, my two sons, daughter and family at the time. My journey left me damaged physically also making relationships difficult.

    Your account makes it easier to relate. Thanks

  5. Thanks so much for giving some understanding of radiation therapy, Carol. Wow, such a long time to be away from home, you’re incredibly brave to go through it alone for most of it. So good that the staff are kind & caring. xxx

    • Thanks Linda. The staff at both the hospital and the accommodation lodge were all lovely, and made the experience much nicer than it could have been.
      Bless you!

  6. As always you explain your experiences with a personal touch and a sense of humour. You are one of the trendy folk now you have a tat on your titty!! Moo Goo is a favourite of mine, I hope you have let them know how helpful you found their products. They seem genuinely interested in their customers. Big hug. Lynne xxxxxxxxx

  7. Carol, you have explained this small part of your journey so well. I can’t even imagine the loneliness you must have felt so far away from your home. Thank you so much for opening up a world that some of us think we know about but really have no idea. It’s true what others are saying…you have a beautiful way with words and it is an honour that you are sharing pieces of your life with us.

  8. Dear Carol, A journey not all would ask for and one I have not been on. Thank you for sharing you, sharing the details and the beeeeps, sharing your heart and sharing your life with us. I am sure your thoughts and your blog are an encouragement to others on the journey as it is to us as we click on and read. Lots of love and hugs Yvonne xxxx0000

  9. Thanks Carol for your blogging. My Mum has just finished chemo and radiation treatment for throat cancer, and while she has described her journey in parts to me, it is so much clearer reading of your experience. Thinking of you, with love and a hug.

  10. Well done Carol. Thanks for sharing what went on behind closed doors! It gives those not directly involved a better appreciation and motivation for support.

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