When I was arguing that I’d prefer a lumpectomy over radiation, the breast surgeon and the plastic surgeon both took radiation as the big down side to a lumpectomy. With a mastectomy I wouldn’t need radiation, though women with more advanced cancer often do. I remember after the surgery I told the surgeon I was happy with the results. “Well,” she said, “we’ll see what you say after radiation.” O thanks.
I had the accelerated Canadian protocol, as it is called in the States, but still it was 5 days a week for 4 weeks. Sometimes there were long waits since the machines were down; it usually took minimally 2 hours, including driving back and forth, waiting for the car, etc. Patients getting radiation were given free valet parking!
Those waiting for treatment sit in a small area. Everyone brought in some snacks for their last day, and we’d sit and tell our stories and sometimes munch. Many women had also had chemo and had lost their hair. There were very amazing women. Women with very little hair can look like medieval saints.
The first picture has me in the kit we tended to wear to the radiation machine. You won’t be able to miss the machine. That big thing moves up and over one; for most of my treatment I got rays from two different angles. It isn’t really frightening, but I felt it should be.
At my cancer center you ring a bell the last day of treatment, as in the picture below. The technicians joined me and my partner. This center apparently picks staff who are very friendly and upbeat; sometimes they seem to carry one’s mood forward. The young man to the far left is in training, and he’s still permanently in a state of mild shock.
If I look uphappy it was because (1) by this time in radiation one is often slowed down and not exactly chirpy; I had had in four weeks the dosage that most women are given in six, and I count myself fortunate that I have had only one automobile accident; (2) I had been up to 2 am the night before because my child, who lives a thousand miles away, contacted us with an exceptionally serious medical problem, and my husband was getting a flight the next day to go see him; (3) I am investigating filing a complaint under the Americans with Disabilities Act, among other things. Collecting documentation of a history of alleged adverse treatment is profoundly depressing. It’s also the last thing I want to be doing.
It is astonishing what negative actions will be taken against women on medical leave for cancer treatment.
On the positive side, the Missoni sweater I have on cost 25% of its regular price, and I’m considered something of a miracle person since the radiation left my skin and breast looking almost exactly as they did before. So there, breast surgeon and plastic surgeon!
I haven’t yet gotten around to investigating whether women with cancer have more problems on leave than men do. One problem is that a lot of people get cancer after 40-50, and so their employers may be figuring that any excuse to replace them is not an opportunity to be missed. The cancer center has all sorts of advisors on these sorts of issues, so I was often suggesting people contact them. In effect, having cancer may just make one a good target whatever one’s gender.
I have an indirect connection with an organization that does documentaries, and when I get my strength back, I may look into seeing if one could be done about the women getting radiation at a major cancer center. Everyone is going on going on, and finding a way to do so. Since the group is very mixed in race, class, education and religion, the ways people were finding to keep going are very different. Many, many of them had much worse reactions that I had; one young woman of 23 was being treated for reoccurrent breast cancer, and her whole chest and much of her neck was bright red and very itchy. She will probably burn and peel for two more weeks. She is here alone, as indeed are many people who come from around the world. I gave her my name and phone number and said she could call me at any time about anything except spiders.
Another woman had cancer that also grew on the outside; she discovered it about 3 months ago, and she went immediately into palliative care. There is no hope for her survival, and managing quite intense pain is the main objective of her treatment.
If I got the documentary organized, I’d looked at a number of different things, including some of the interesting research going on at my university. But my main motivation is that I think the four weeks spent with these women forms a really valuable part of my life. It is such a cliche to find deep value in the circumstances surrounding painful and scary treatment. This time at least it was very true for me.
Next up for me is five years of what I think of as a mild poison. Bone loss, joint pain and hot flashes are its major bad side effects.