Column: Getting acquainted with radiation

While getting set up for CT scan Friday morning, I tried to reason with the man running the machine. I was back at the CAMC Cancer Center, this time in the radiation oncology department for a preliminary appointment.
In a few days, my radiation treatment will start. In addition to the scan, I was there to get three tiny tattoos — markers in the center of my chest and on my sides — that will somehow factor into positioning me for those treatments. Getting tattooed did not sound pleasant.
“Can’t you use permanent markers instead?” I asked. “You could put tape over them so they don’t come off, and put more ink on whenever they start to fade.”
No. Even permanent markers come off, and these three markers needed to be permanent. But he assured me that it wouldn’t hurt.
I didn’t believe him. I had already asked another of my health care providers — a breast cancer survivor — and she said it would.
I expected the worst. I thought he would come at me with a tattoo machine. But once the scan was over and the time came for him to put the markers on, he took out a lancet, not a tattoo machine. I only felt a tiny pinch for each of the markers. It was over in no time, and with minimal pain.
“Was that it?!” I said.
That was it. I had dreaded this appointment since I was told about it five days before. All week, I told everyone who asked about treatment that I had to have three tattoos and that it would hurt.
Once again, I had been built up something in my mind and made it worse than it actually was. I’ve decided that with cancer treatment, it’s difficult to tell what’s going to be hurt and what won’t. It’s hard to determine what I should dread and what I shouldn’t.
As I’m writing this, I have about 10 days before my first radiation treatment. I’ll have 28 treatments total. I’ll go in for them five days a week.
The appointments are quick — maybe 15 or 20 minutes each. The doctor told me that for the first three or four weeks of treatment, I may not have any sort of reaction to the radiation.
By the fifth week, though, my skin may dry or flakey like the start of a sunburn. Some people even have blistering. The good news is that skin heals quickly from radiation.
Exhaustion is the other side effect I’m likely to experience on radiation. The doctor said it’s similar to the tiredness you feel when you’ve been out on the beach in the sun all day. Some women I’ve talked to about radiation say they sleep 18 hours a day during treatment.
Every body is different. I’ll just have to wait and see how mine takes it.

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