Do you smell something burning?

This incredible hand-beaded bag—Genie's New Hangout—by Sherry Serafini has nothing to do with this post about side effects on the skin from radiation treatments. Photos to illustrate the post would be gross. This beading is gorgeous. Better to look at, by a long shot! Find Sherry's work at ww.serafinibeadedjewelry.com.

This incredible hand-beaded bag—Genie’s New Hangout—by Sherry Serafini has nothing to do with this post about side effects on the skin from radiation treatments. Photos to illustrate the post would be gross. This beading is gorgeous. Better to look at, by a long shot! Find Sherry’s work at ww.serafinibeadedjewelry.com.

Oh yeah, that’s my skin. Ick.

When I started radiation, I obsessed over whether my skin would burn dark red or just sunburn red, maybe just pink, or not, in particular if I would end up with weeping, oozy, open sores. I heard about a full range of skin effects from women who’d been through it, from a light sunburn, to a full sunburn, to the dreaded weeping, oozy, open sores.

After three weeks, I had a rosy pinkiness to half of my chest, underarm and back. My weekly appointment with the radiology oncologist came up, and I told him how I was really worrying about the full five-week effect on my skin, even though I knew he couldn’t possibly predict what would happen with me. I said I would appreciate knowing even a rough percentage, based on all the breast cancer patients he sees, of women who end up with raw, open burns from their radiation. Overall, he said, maybe five per cent.

FIVE PER CENT!!! I was torturing myself over five per cent?!?! What a doofus. I stopped worrying.

Less than a week later the skin under my arm turned black. For a little while I thought it was because I wore a black top and the copious amounts of moisturizer I was applying picked up the black colour from it. Then the black crumbled off to reveal bright red, raw, oozy me. Of course, with triple negative, and no actual primary site, I would fall into the five per cent of women with weeping second-degree burns. My radiation oncologist prescribed a silver sulfadiazene cream (Flamazine) to prevent infection, and for the first time since May 22, I was glad my nerve endings didn’t work in my arm and underarm area—it feels creepy, but it doesn’t hurt. Thank God! Because the sight of it turned my stomach.

When I saw my plastic surgeon during the last week of radiation, undressed from the waist up—of course, I feel like a poorly paid stripper since last October, ripping off my tops, sweaters, bra and gown for almost anyone—she gingerly lifted up my right arm and said, “They fried you, sister!” She sure spoke the truth.

Radiation is finished now. The sleeping continues.

Girl irradiated

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Today I am four-fifths of the way through the radiation portion of my breast cancer side trip. I was in a bad place when I started radiation—sad, scared, not too brave and strong, and not in a mind space to be confidently ticking off the days. So, here’s a recap:

After a triumphant poisoning of my entire body, I had a complete pathological response to that poisoning, known as a cPr. That was the best-case scenario from chemo. Then I struggled over bilateral mastectomy, one side only, lumpectomy, partial mastectomy, radiation only (and I mean a kind of tortured inner wrangling with my emotional self vs the opinions of the medical people, who did not have consensus, mixed up with blogs and forums and discussion boards by women who’d made the choice and were living with their choices, happy or miserable). I had my fancy customized bilateral mastectomy, and after the pain and “discomfort” I must admit I have healed up pretty good. Then, on July 4, I started radiation.

Before the actual radiation began, I went for a simulation appointment, where my chest and breasts and armpit were measured six ways to Sunday in an effort to pinpoint exactly where the radiation beams would be directed and at what angles and for what spread. It was not an unpleasant procedure, nice techs—one guy and two girls—and the tattooing of four blue dots didn’t even hurt. Unfortunately, one of them is front and centre between my breasts and  and up three inches—visible with almost every summer top I own. It looks like I’ve been doodling on myself or dropped a teeny blob of ink there. Oh well.

Why do I need radiation? Speaking personally, I want to zap any and all bits of cancer left behind from the mastectomy and lymph node removal. There’s hours of cutting and scraping and poking about during that surgery, and God only knows what might have been missed or dislodged. Radiation zaps the tissue were it is pointed, in my case to four “fields”: entire right breast, right axilla, and because my cancer is metastatic, the internal mammary lymph nodes and supraclavicular lymph nodes too. Radiation that is delivered to these areas kills off the good cells as well as the bad, but the healthy cells can build themselves back to working order, while the cancer cells are weaker, and research has shown that doses of radiation delivered daily will kill off the cancer that is left. I HOPE!

My radiation treatments are at Princess Margaret Hospital, every day, five days a week. The appointments are scattered throughout the day, which I thought would be disruptive but turned out to be good—I come in as scheduled, some days at 8 a.m., sometimes at 5:40 p.m. Treatments are always on time, and many times I have come in early, even by an hour, and I’m always seen quickly. I’m called in, change into a gown, then go into the treatment room where I lie in a narrow table. They place a form under my knees to keep them bent and my back flat. I take my arm out of my gown and place it up over my head in a metal arm rest so it’s always in the same position. The two technicians then ask for my birthdate, rhyme off measurements and numbers to each other, sometimes cover me with a sheet if the gown doesn’t want to stay up. Lately, they also strap me down with a thick, wide Velcro band (a new practice since a patient at another hospital reportedly fell asleep on the table and rolled off) (I practise deep breathing during my radiation, but I have never been close to relaxed enough to fall asleep!). Then the techs step outside the treatment room to their computers, and the linear accelerator does its thing, whirring and beaming and then rotating around the table to get various angles on me. The whole thing, from gown on to gown off, takes 15 minutes. Nothing hurts. Nothing feels sick. I say a cheery thank you and see you tomorrow, and they say the same.

Side effects from radiation:

  • my skin is burning—you can see one patch in the photo above, and there is more under my arm, on the breast, and on my back. I put Aveeno and Lubriderm on every day, but some areas are getting worse, so the nurse gave me ProShieldPlus, which is the stickiest, gooiest stuff I have ever felt.
  • I hurt on the inside—apparently radiation can cause swelling of the tissues in the chest and armpit, and I’m feeling that. Nothing that tylenol or ibuprofen can’t fix.
  • fatigue—i am sleeping far too much. On a typical day when radiation is in the morning, I can sleep from noon until 5:30, then 7:30 to 11, when Luka wakes me so I can actually go upstairs and sleep until 4 or 5, when I wake and worry until I fall asleep again, always lightly, until I get up at 6:30 or 7. A variation on that one is sleeping from noon until 8 p.m., then going upstairs to sleep through until 4 or 5. Today, Saturday, so no radiation, I woke at 8, fed the animals, slept from 8:30 to 10:30, Skyped with Tessa and woke up Luka, slept 11 to 4 p.m. and have remained awake all evening. This is a feat!

I have one more week to go. Yay!