I saw my neighbour the other day and he asked where I was off to so bright and early. “Radiotherapy,” I replied. He looked surprised, then stuttered out that he thought I was all finished. A few other people have said similar things. I guess this part of my treatment is a bit eclipsed by the ‘ALL CLEAR’ news. We’re all ready to move on but there’s just one more bit to do. Radiotherapy is the black sheep of cancer treatment, coming in at the end of the party, getting too drunk and vomiting on the birthday girl.
Part of the reason people aren’t in the know is because I haven’t been writing about it. Facebook is still a no-go for me to express most things cancery. I’m up for glib outlooks on serious and scary issues but Facebook takes it just one step too far and I really can’t handle emoticon-based comments on pictures of my radiation burns. I did, however, get the fire in the my belly to come to bosom buds last night, a much more appropriate and grown up place for existential crises.
This is the least offensive photo idea I could come up with to show you my burns. The left side is my untreated left boob and the right side is bad boob. This is actually the worst it has been so I think I got off lightly compared to other folks. There were some photos circulated on Facebook just before I went in for treatment of a woman who was very cross with the sexualisation of breast cancer by some awareness campaigns. She wanted to highlight the grim reality of radiotherapy and I salute her contribution to the debate. For me personally though, it was entirely bad timing. As I lay there, strapped into my boob mould on the treatment table, I started to have panic attacks. I mentioned it to one of the radiographers and she reassured me that the women pictured had had double the treatments I would. She also had the older model of treatment which involves excessive treatments, perhaps because of a lack of change in the US healthcare system or because doctors are paid per treatment there.
My skin has held together and I’ve had no blistering. Phew. I’ve been using various creams in the campaign to save my skin. The main one is Lilah’s old nappy cream. I told the radiographers this and they were extremely skeptical. There was a lot of raising of eyebrows and dubious tones of voice. When you’re lying half-naked, pinned and unable to move, that kind of reaction to your carefully laid plans really sucks. I tried to relieve the tension by telling them “Don’t worry, it’s all natural. It’s planted by virgin fairies in holes dug by unicorns under the full moon.” Pause for laughs.. nothing. All they wanted to know was did it contain metals. They weren’t impressed by comedic folklore/industrial mash-ups.
I went home deflated, a bit cross and did my research. All it contains is almond oil, chamomile and calendula and no metals. A week later, no blisters, and they were eating humble pie. They even admitted “What do we know anyway?” They were just looking out for me so I wasn’t too annoyed and I’m all up for the ‘show me the proof’ approach. It’s just rough dealing with people’s serious faces when you’re feeling vulnerable and tiredness is making you weep randomly.
That segues nicely into the fatigue. This is tiredness like I’ve never known and I’ve had ME. I hit ‘the wall’ around 5pm. But I’m basically exhausted all day. We went on a day trip to Camber Sands on Monday and although I didn’t do much walking, the hour and a half drive finished me off. With that level of tiredness comes a lack of ability to problem solve, make decisions of any kind and be patient with humans. Especially small humans. I have had to remove myself from interacting with Lilah at these times and that’s starting to hurt both of us.
I’ve also started to worry lately because I’ve been having this sense of dissociation. I feel like I’m watching a movie of my life and things seem unreal. This can be a coping mechanism and is quite common as a part of a PTSD reaction in cancer patients. I’ve thought about doing mindfulness stuff to help reconnect the old mind-body up. But who wants to be in their bodies when their bodies feel like crap? I thought about going to the allotment, digging my hands in soil, forcing the physicality. Except I’m too tired to go. But getting a good nights sleep does help. Writing here is helping, realising this is all perfectly normal and knowing it will end soon.
Other things have been happening though. I’ve had another ECG to make sure the Herceptin isn’t going to stop my heart. Lilah came along and she was totally mesmerised seeing my heart beating.
I haven’t had the results yet but I’m assuming that the technician would have freaked out if he’d seen anything catastrophic. Although he was one of the least chatty technicians I’ve had and couldn’t even be persuaded to interact by appealing to our in-depth knowledge of his home country, the USA. He was very discreet though and encouraged me not to flash my boobs at him by showing me how to hold the gown just-so. This made me feel very strange about the last technician I had who insisted on lying over me to reach the other boob, thus crushing my body between his and the outstretched arm. Hm, I’m giving the benefit of the doubt that there was a very good technical reason for this kind of intimacy.
Today is the start of the last five sessions of radiotherapy. These are boosters, commonly given to young people with aggressive cancers like mine. They will be focusing the X-rays on the specific place where the tumour was and not treating the whole boob. I’ll be all finished next Tuesday. I will still have pain for the next six months. I get shooting pains in the scar tissue that make me involuntarily moan and/or suck my breath in. The tiredness could take years to dissipate. The radiographer who reviewed my treatment told me this next period of transition could be “tricky”. Once all the treatments stop, the medical support goes too. When you’re all “better”, the rest of your support system gets back to their own lives. He offered me psychological services with only a waiting list of a couple of weeks. I may take it.