From the monthly archives:

March 2010

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Every day now the same routine: leave work for the hospital. Park curbside by the entrance and walk through the sliding glass doors into the main lobby. Take the elevator one floor down into the basement, turn a corner and – voila – radiation oncology. Change into the insane asylum robe, wait a few minutes before being called to lie down on the plastic foam bag and get zapped. You cannot feel a thing. You can only hear a hum from the equipment.

After a week of radiation, my right breast is red, feels warm, and a bit tender. Despite all careful instructions: don’t wash with harsh soaps, use aloe creams, don’t wear a bra. Don’t expose to sun light. Not now. Not for the next two years.

-Look at my breast. Is this radiation damage? I ask the two techs who attend me at each session. They are G., short and stout and severely menopausal. Fans her sweat attacks away with my folder. (At one session I cannot resist giving G. a card that reads: those who say “no sweat” have never been through menopause. ) The other tech is J., also short and fairly heavy set. She has a luminous black complexion, is cheerful, and has a great smile. She is making plans to take her 10-year old daughter to Paris on her next vacation.

They both glance at my red breast and laugh at my wild imagination.

-Honey, you will not be able to notice anything for at least three weeks, if that. It is way too early.

But my breast only seems to be getting redder, and feels hotter each day. I compare my left breast with my right by feeling them with the back of my hand and looking in the mirror. Yes, my radiated breast is much warmer than my left breast. I call Dr. Alpha, who I normally see only once a week.

-Your techs think I am a hypochondriac, but my radiated breast is red and hot although I am told it will not happen for weeks.

The next day, Dr. Alpha examines me, the same way I examined myself: By feeling the two breast with the back of his hand and comparing the color of each breast. He nods in approval.

-You are right. Again! says Dr. Alpha. Good thing you noticed too. You have an infection. It is not unusual after two surgeries. But it would have been difficult to detect later as your treatments proceed. I will give you an anti-biotic. He scribbles on his pad.

-Wow, Cipro, the athlete’s drug. Thanks. Do you have special instructions? Taken with meals? With a bottle of wine?

-Half of bottle of wine. Dr. Alpha chuckles.

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Finally, I am scheduled for radiation therapy or rather: Preparation for radiation. I meet with a technician to get my measurements set in a foam contour.  Actually, it turns out to be  nothing fancier than a plastic bag that she fills with warm liquid. I  then lie  down and my contours are set as the liquid firms up.  When I come for my therapy I will  lie down in exactly the same position every time.

The radiation oncology department has two waiting areas: one  for family or friends who accompany a patient. In this area there is an aquarium and a small reception desk, a few arm chairs.   It is almost empty.

A door with the sign: “Radiology Patients Only”  leads to another small, crowded waiting area. The ceiling is low and covered with acoustic tiles.  The chairs are the same type as in the outside waiting area.The magazines in the basket are out-dated and dog eared. Staff members, mostly women in blue scrubs, mill about, going in and out of side rooms, opening and closing doors, appearing or disappearing from behind curtains,  seemingly without purpose. Back against one wall is a blue drapery and behind it some cupboards above a low bench. That is where I am supposed to change into a cotton gown, property of the hospital, one size fits all — or nobody.

I also have a CAT scan which takes but a few minutes. I lie down on a narrow bed that slides in and out through a dough nut hole. I have no idea that I am receiving 6000 rads of radiation through out my whole my body. It is a  hundred times more radiation than a regular X-ray. Nobody explained the high level of radiation I would receive. Nobody told me why they need to have my cat scan although I recently had an MRI or why the MRI images would not be good enough.

Every day, Monday through Friday, for the next eight weeks, I will receive a prescribed dose of radiation to kill any cancer cells that may have been left. The therapy will cover my whole breast with some extra shock treatments concentrated on the breast area  where the tumor was (the tumor bed.)

A linear accelerator produces the treatment x-rays and this special  therapy to kill cancer cells is known as EBRT – external beam radiation therapy. (Without radiation, 40 percent of lumpectomy patients have a local recurrence of their breast cancer.)

The exact level of radiation will be set by Dr. Alpha and his medical dosimetrist. The actual radiation therapy treatments will be handled by his radiology technicians. I am told that I will be checked by Dr. Alpha, the radiation oncologist, every Monday.

I get to pick my time slot. I choose  2.15 PM Monday through Friday.  (Should I not be able to come one day, I can come twice the next day, as long as it is six hours between the treatments.) Finally, I get a parking pass, a yellow 8 x 11″ piece of paper with the words radiation oncology written in magic marker. It  is valid for the next eight weeks. When put on my dashboard, it allows me to park for free right outside the hospital entrance doors and to  avoid the crowded parking garage.

I am all set for my personal Chernobyl.

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