Radiation therapy the clean up crew

Radiation Therapy
The clean-up crew

Published by The Day – December 24. 2015 12:24PM

Melissa Johnson

The journey continues. And it is a journey, even though some may think that word is too soft to describe the grueling, undesirable process of cancer treatment. To be sure, I’d rather be driving across the country on an epic road trip like I did in 2004, or backpacking across Europe like I did the year after. But all three journeys brought me new friends, new experiences, new memories and new lessons about myself — and I’d venture to say that my cancer journey has taught me more about myself than one marked by passport stamps or state lines.

I’m now halfway through radiation therapy. I have appointments every weekday for 25 days, and luckily for me, a Yale radiation oncologist specializing in breast cancer treatment has set up shop at the new L+M Cancer Center in Waterford, so I don’t have to drive to New Haven every day. (That’s a journey I’m glad not to be making.)

I check in and get my paper ID bracelet, which the receptionist decorates with a colorful sticker jewel after she prints it out. I hang out in the awesome waiting room, which is decked out with a flat-screen TV, comfortable couches, a Keurig machine and snacks. It’s more like a living room than a medical center.

My cancer buddy, a.k.a. Dad, almost always meets me there. He had his own radiation treatment there last year, so he knows everyone there. He smiles at the employees and the other cancer patients he doesn’t know. I didn’t think I’d need him as much as I needed him when I was having chemo, since my appointments are so quick, but I felt forlorn the one time he couldn’t come to radiation.

A radiation tech fetches me from the waiting room, and I change into a hospital gown. I see the same two women in the changing room and waiting area, the women with the appointments before and after mine, respectively. The woman before me, an older, grandmotherly lady, always smiles at me and wishes me luck. I go into the control room to confirm I’m me and that we’re treating my right side.

Then I’m led into the radiation chamber, a large room behind what looks like a metal door about a foot thick with a $4.5 million machine that shoots invisible radiation beams into my body while I lay on a table beneath it. The beams are precisely aimed at the spots we want to treat for any lingering cancer cells that chemo and my lumpectomy may have missed.

Radiation is usually the last aggressive component before the longer term treatments like Tamoxifen, a hormone suppression pill I will take for five years along with a monthly shot of Goserelin to put my ovaries to sleep. That treatment plan is an option for me only because I’m younger than 35 and my tumor was fueled by estrogen and progesterone. Tamoxifen and Goserelin will suppress my body’s production of those hormones, hopefully blocking any more tumors like the one I had from forming again.

I’m on the table for about five minutes total before the rotating plate that administers the radiation stops circling around me and comes to a rest directly above my face. The techs help me sit up and send me on my way. I change back into my shirt and my dad and I usually hang out in the plush waiting room and sip hot chocolate until the front desk staff kicks us out to close for the night. At home I apply the very fitting Udderly Smooth lotion to my breast and the area above and below it, over to the center of my chest since we’re treating lymph nodes there as well. Aside from a slight look of sunburn, my skin has held up well so far. But radiation’s effects are cumulative, so we’ll see how my right side is doing after two more weeks of zaps.

This journey offers only two destinations: remission or an early death. So I’m working toward remission and enjoying the journey as best I can, both the treatment aspects and the completely unrelated things that bring me joy, like my family and friends, music, movies, stargazing, my favorite Thai takeout, listening to the rain at night, and thinking about my dreams for the future.

Every time I turn around, I’m meeting or hearing about another woman with breast cancer. There are a lot of us, unfortunately, but one piece of advice I have is to ignore the statistics. You are not a number or a percentage. You could very well be the person who beats the odds. People have called me brave, but all I do is show up to my appointments and pay attention when the doctors explain my options.

Sometimes that’s all any of us can do. That, and enjoy the journey.

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