Carle knows me pretty well by now. She knows if I’m tired before I say it, she knows if I’m hurting before I try to move my arms above my head. She gets me. So I wasn’t all that surprised when she took one look at my skin and suggested calling in one of the oncologists before proceeding with today’s treatment; she knows my body well enough to know it wasn’t doing so hot. Pun intended.
My oncologist, Alice, is on vacation. So Carle called in a doctor whose name I can never remember. But I know it starts with a C and I know she’s really friendly and kind, and so in my head, I think of her as Mrs. C, from Happy Days. The actual oncologist doesn’t look anything like Marion Ross (A/K/A Mrs. Cunningham), but it’s a lighthearted and safe image with which I feel comfortable. Plus, Happy Days was set in Wisconsin, so she’s kinda like one of my countrywomen.
Anyway, Dr. C examined my skin and immediately started talking about how I might want to think about taking a break from treatment. We talked about how raw and open my skin is, how the burning is getting pretty bad, and she thought a few days off might help at least a bit. She assured me it’s safe to take a day or two off – it won’t limit the effectiveness of my treatment. She also told me something I didn’t know: it takes 3-5 days for the effects of the radiation to show up. So what I’m seeing and feeling now is only the result of what’s happened as of last week. In other words, it’s going to get much worse before it gets any better.
As it is, my nipple is in constant pain. It’s a combination of nerve pain and just, well, burning. My areola looks like a drought zone, filled with deep cracking and at least 4 distinct shades of burnt red. My surgical incision randomly jolts me with electrical zaps of regenerating nerve pain. But my armpit is probably the worst of all: it is open and raw, and of course is constantly rubbing on itself. So it hurts to move my arm, it hurts to wear anything with sleeves, it hurts to even shower. And let’s not even discuss how hard it is to find a comfortable position for sleeping.
(Interesting note: Hair stops growing in areas being radiated. So my armpit, which is already half-red and half-white, is also half-hairless and half-fuzzy -- it became way too irritated to shave anymore about 2 weeks ago. So basically I’m currently rocking the weirdest looking armpit west of the Mississippi.)
I decided to go ahead and get today’s treatment, since I was already there and lined up on the table; that part of me that doesn’t want to admit how weak and human I really am decided I could just tough it out, despite the fact that all I really wanted to do was get the hell out of that place as quickly as I possibly could. And then take a nap.
But we did the regular treatment, and then Carle did some extra work to prepare me for my upcoming “boost.” The boost is not as much fun as it sounds. Every time she says it, I immediately think of the free boost you get with a Jamba Juice. They have, I dunno, energy boosts and whey protein boosts and maybe a femme boost of some sort. It’s probably just extra sugar or something, but it’s a catchy gimmick and I really do love me some smoothie drinks! And, you know, it’s happy sounding.
Sadly, a boost, in radiation terms, is something entirely different. So far, my treatment has been going after my entire breast and all its tissue – hence the armpit burning. It’s a general treatment, designed to protect that breast from any cancer re-occurrences. What they call a boost is really when they go after the site of the original cancer. If it wasn’t happening to me, it would be fascinating.
They have these really cool 3-D scans of my body, specifically defining my lumpectomy bed (the cancer that was removed, along with the surrounding tissue). It’s a bit of a goofy shape, and it’s almost directly behind my nipple. So they traced the outline of that tissue from the scans, and then cut the shape out of a metal plate. That plate is attached to the end of this full-on NASA-lookin’ zoom ray thingie that gets attached to the normal radiation machine. (The plate will be melted down when I finish my treatment, and then reused. I love the sustainable approach to this process, but am also a bit bummed – I kinda want to keep is as a fucked-up souvenir.) Of course I’m simplifying all of this, but the point is that it’s brilliant and crazy as hell, and it looks straight out of an original Star Trek episode, maybe something that threatens to vaporize Spok.
The point of all of this is to zero in on that lumpectomy bed and aim all the radiation at the original point of my cancer, to make sure any remaining malignancy is zapped in to oblivion and prevent anything else from growing there. Needless to say, I’m not looking forward to this change; it’s my understanding that I’ll be getting the same dose of radiation I’ve been getting all along, but all of it will be concentrated on that one small area…which means that one small area will be getting all the concentrated damage. It’s not a pretty picture.
At least Carle did her part to make a pretty picture from it, though. She needed to make a few marks on my breast with a marker while they were measuring for the boost. When I changed back in to my clothes after treatment, I realized that somewhere in that process, she drew me a smiley face. I really do love that girl.
So, I’m taking tomorrow off from radiation. And because of the Labor Day holiday, that means I’ll have 4 days off before my next treatment. I’m partially relieved, but also partially disappointed. I’m really ready for this phase of my treatment to be over, and part of me wants to just get the damage, suck it up, and then get to the business of healing already. I hate prolonging it – it’s not like I get to skip tomorrow’s treatment, just tack on an extra day to the end. I’ve never been a procrastinator, and I feel like that’s what I’m turning in to.
But there’s something to be said for just taking some time to breathe. My momma used to let me skip school once in a while, provided I wouldn’t miss a test, to take what she called “mental health days”: she said it was important to take a day now and then to just relax and hang out. She used to call in to school for me when I was ill and needed to stay home, and she never thought there was any difference between calling in for me because I just, you know, wanted a little break. So I’m thinking of tomorrow as a mental health day, a day to try to breathe and sleep and rest and not have to leave the house or even get dressed if I don’t want to. I’m giving myself permission to cuddle with my kitties and play guitar if I have the energy, or just stare at the beautiful flowers Kara keeps bringing me if I don’t.
After all, it’s not like that radiation table won’t be waiting for me when I get back.