Curious what radiation treatment is like for cancer patients? This post will walk you through one day of radiation treatment for a patient with breast cancer (me).
Disclaimer: It is important to note that cancer treatments are tailored to the patient and their pathology, so there can be quite a bit of variation in the way treatment is experienced.
Here’s a peek into my experience getting radiated for breast cancer.
My first day with the radiation team did not involve radiation at all. On this appointment, I spent the bulk of my time in a CT Scan machine (no contrast) that was used to take measurements that would be used to design my specific treatment plan. They spent quite a bit of time aligning my body into a specific position, with my arms up over my head, gripping a post at the top of the bed.
Then I was tattooed: four little dots, one on each side at the bottom of my rib cage, and two down the center, one right in the middle of my breast bone, and the other, just below the bottom of my breast bone. They also placed a bag of chemicals under my head and shoulders; as those chemicals reacted to each other they formed a sturdy foam that conformed to my shape and would be a cradle that would hold me in this position for my treatments.
It took about a month to get the radiation plan squared away. Then they called me in for another appointment – no radiation this time either, but this was a run through to make sure all of the calculations were in order. On the last field, they discovered that the frame touched my chest, that’s why they do the run through, so they to called in the dosimetrist, physicist and a physician to make an adjustment to my treatment plan. They also gave me my fifth tattoo two inches below my collarbone. The next day I went back for my first radiation treatment.
Radiation is administered every day except for weekends and holidays. My plan was for 28 days, which was six weeks once you fit in the two holidays. The team was amazing. There was always at least two radiation technicians, and usually three or more, involved in my treatment each day. They worked together, double checking every single setting, and making me comfortable at the same time.
The room in which the radiation was administered was behind a foot thick door.
The ceiling lights had pictures, just like the dentist, only the pictures are nicer.
Tools are laid out, and ready to go. Those markers, very important medical devices. These guys scribbled all over me every day.
When I first enter the room, I lie down on the bed and they put a band around my feet to hold them still, and cover me up with a warm blanket. Oh, I love those warm blankets. I fit my head and shoulders into the foam cradle, and there is a post sticking up at the top of the bed for me to wrap my hands around. The form and the post help a lot with holding still. The bed is driven around a bit to line my tattoos up with the equipment, and then to make adjustments for each field of the treatment.
The machine that administers the radiation is also capable of taking digital x-rays. Once a week, treatment started with x-rays to make sure everything still lined up correctly (this helps them course correct in case of swelling or changes in weight during the 6 week course of treatment).
There’s Jerrod, drawing lines on my chest. The lines were actually drawn on to make sure I was lined up correctly while they administered the field.
The first two doses of radiation are administered with the use of metal fabric called brass bolus. The brass bolus is used to help trick the radiation beam into focusing closer to my skin rather than deeper into my body.
If you think my breast is a weird shape, sitting up like that while I’m laying on my back, you’d be right. It’s not really a breast. The breast is gone. That’s an implant called an expander that was put in place during my mastectomy, and it makes it possible for me to get new boobs after I’m healed up from treatment. Aaron calls it my bionic boob.
The expander does require some working around when it comes to the radiation treatments. The brass bolus is used, rather than the foam bolus, because it conforms to the shape of the expander better. You can see from the picture below that its a bit slinky and hugs the curves. Once they get it placed just right, they tape it to make sure it doesn’t move.
Once they get everything lined up perfectly, the team leaves the room. There are several video cameras and the room and they can hear me and speak to me, so it’s not like I’m completely isolated. I don’t feel the radiation, but the machine does hum while it’s being administered. Then they come back in, position the equipment to focus on the another area, and repeat.
For me, there were two positions with the brass bolus, then two more that focused on my collar bone, and then the final shot involved this contraption; they referred to it as “the boost.”. The purpose of this last shot was to put an electron field right up under the corner of that expande.
Much of the time while they were lining me up, the lights were out so they could more readily see the lasers and make other measurements with light that was projected on to my skin.
Every member of this team was so professional, at the same time, they were able to crack a joke, and keep me laughing through treatment. They made it so I didn’t dread going in every day.
Today is my last treatment, so I want to take a moment to shout out to the team. Dr. Janice Kim, Dr. Ermoine, Dane, Jarrod, Randall, Lorena, Jeannette, Sue, Jenny, Talina, Tony, Kelly, Christine, Rowena, and Sheree (and I’m so sorry if I left someone’s name out) – thank you so much for taking such good care of me. And thank you for tolerating the photo shoots while you were working.
I hope this post will help ease your mind if you are facing radiation treatment. If you have received a cancer diagnosis and are wondering what you can expect from treatment, you might also check out my post: Walkthrough of Chemo Day for a Cancer Patient.
Did you notice that stuff on my head? Hair!
You can learn more about my cancer story here: