Radiation – Zaps with a Purpose

I’m half way through my course of radiation treatments. As predicted, my breast is pink, as if I’d been in the sun all day and have a light sun burn.

Radiation is even more of a mind game than chemo. At least with chemotherapy you are surrounded by fellow patients and chemotherapy nurses. Not so at radiation.

You are alone in this big, cold room with a big machine that shoots killer rays at your chest. After the techs set you up on the table, they leave the room before they turn the machine on as they don’t want to be exposed to the rays. (Think of the last time you had an x-ray at the doctor’s or dentist – the person administering the x-ray leaves the room.)  It’s a daily reminder that this treatment that is killing any nasty cancer cells that might be hanging around after chemo can also be lethal in cumulative quantities. It’s sobering.

The process of setting you up before the zap is very reassuring. There are always two radiation therapists who verify the alignment and calibrations of the set up for each session. They call out numbers and check laser beams that align with the tattoos. Rulers measure distances in millimetres and Sharpie markers are used to put verification dots in the planes for entry and exit points. Measurements are verified twice, and then another time before they leave the room.

A small box is taped to the centre of your chest. It has motion sensors similar to those used on athletes by video game makers when they are tracking sports motions and actions by professional players that are then transformed via CGI into very realistic games. When you breathe in to hold your breath, the box rises, and its motion is tracked on the computer screen. It’s carefully monitored to ensure it stays within the ‘safe zone’ box (i.e. you’re not letting out your breath), and they tell you to breathe in a bit or let out breath if you get out of the zone.

The zaps last about 20 seconds. This massive machine directs the beam through your breast from one side, then rotates 180 degrees and then shoots the beam in through the other side. It is loud. You can’t see it. You can sort of feel it. Occasionally I get little prickly feelings on the surface of the skin. The entire experience – from the time I show up, change, get my zap, put my clothes back on and head out – takes about 20 minutes.

There seemed to be more women than men at chemotherapy. At radiation, the waiting area is almost equally men and women. So far, I have been the youngest person in the room, by at least a decade. The radiation waiting room is much nicer with more amenities than the chemo waiting room. There are TVs, books to read, puzzles and other distractions. Maybe they put all that stuff there because the room is so cold it’s almost like a meat locker. As you head into the radiation zapping room, the therapists offer you a warmed blanket to drape over you while you’re on the table. I’ve left a standing order.

Radiation is daily, Monday to Friday. I’ll be finished by December 30, so I will start the new year cancer-free and all treatments complete. It’s a great start to a new year.

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