On Friday, I had an appointment to go through a test run of my radiation program. During the test, they took an X-ray and CT scan of my chest to make sure the mass hasn’t changed shape/size. Since I was there last, the physicists and dosimetrists created a program of specific angles and doses for the beams and the radiation therapists essentially performed a test run of that program and took some measurements to make sure everything lined up properly.
For whatever reason, getting radiation is a more abstract/off-putting process and one I feel less prepared for than chemotherapy. I think this is because chemotherapy is essentially just receiving medication to treat the disease in the whole body as you would for any other disease. The thought of high energy beams being aimed into my body to kill cells in a specific spot seems kind of out there and is much different than the chemo process.
In any case, I learned a few lessons the other day about getting radiation that might be helpful for other cancer patients.
1) Most importantly, DO NOT slam your thumb in your car door when parking your car right before your treatment. This will make a not so great experience even worse.
Yes, I did do this. I closed my right thumb, about half way down the nail, in my car door. Fortunately, I didn’t slam it too hard but my nail turned purple almost immediately and my thumb swelled up to about three times its normal size.
Because I’m silly about things like this, I didn’t tell the nurses about it when I went down to the radiation department. Instead, I struggled through the whole appointment with my hand shaking and throbbing in pain.
This also made me realize how important thumbs are – as a biologist, I probably should have realized this a lot sooner. Opposeable thumbs aren’t a significant evolutionary adaptation for nothing!
This was completely evident when I met my radiation therapist and she showed me the dressing room so I could change out of my top and bra into a gown. She said she would meet me in the waiting room when I was done. I’m sure she thought it would take me about 2 minutes tops. Not so. I can now tell you from experience that unhooking a bra is next to impossible without using your right thumb. I managed to pull off a contortionist act and slid it over my head to escape the blinding pain of putting any pressure on my thumb. Meanwhile, I was making all sorts of noises – grunting, sighing, “ouching”. I’m sure the women in the other stalls thought I was having a serious problem.
Having a dysfunctional right thumb made it tough to get changed beyond that but I finally got it all squared away. I must have been in there for awhile though since my therapist was waiting for me right outside the dressing room door, not in the waiting room. Had I not been so stupidly proud, I could have just told her I was struggling because I slammed my thumb in my car door. But no…I didn’t want to make a scene and would rather let her think I’m incapable of changing the top half of my body with any sort of urgency.
2) That said – don’t wear jewelry or complicated clothing. I will have to change out of whatever I wear on top each time I go into for radiation because the therapists and nurses need to be able to see the tattoo markers under my arms and on my chest. Since I have to get radiation every weekday, I want to make the process as quick as possible so I’m there for as little time as possible. If I wear necklaces and anything other than a t-shirt, it will just prolong the process.
3) Get used to being adjusted and groped a little bit. I must say that my therapists and nurses (I think there were about five people in the room) were really sensitive to keeping as much covered up as possible. However, there is a certain amount of exposure and poking/prodding that goes along with this process.
They asked me to lay down on the board and the molded pillow made during my last session. They told me to “lay heavy” and they would do all of the work to position me exactly as needed. This meant nudging my upper and lower body in all sorts of positions to get me in exactly the right spot. As a cancer patient, you have to learn not to be modest and you can’t get upset with the process of being touched, positioned, manipulated and maneuvered.
4) Stay still and hold on for the ride. Once I was positioned on the board, they asked me to grip two poles on the board to keep my arms over my head and out of the way. I was then told that they would leave the room and start the machine. The machine rotated around me and the board moved slightly underneath me several times and within about 30 seconds, it was all done.
5) Radiation treatments themselves are pretty uneventful. It’s not as if some crazy green laser beams cross through your body and you can feel it doing its thing. I couldn’t see anything coming out of the machine, nor did it make much of a sound. I mean, give me a little something to make me feel like something is going on – a little whirring, a little beam, something.
Once the test was done, I was robed back up, I changed and I headed home to ice up my thumb. I learned from the nurses that I am now scheduled for at least 17 treatments with a note from my radiation oncologist that I will likely need more but he will schedule later on in the process once he gets an idea of how I’m responding to the treatment. They explained that he will give me the details of the physicists’ and dosimetrists’ findings when I see him for my next appointment on Wednesday. In the meantime, I start my treatments on Tuesday. Hopefully, I won’t smash any other fingers in the doors next time.