Breast cancer blog: My date with the radiation crew - round 1

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 04 July, 2013, 9:36am
UPDATED : Thursday, 29 August, 2013, 4:13am

I’ve been dying to start radiation treatment for a while now in the spirit of placing Cancerland behind me. In preparation, I’ve tapped into the wisdom of fellow breast cancer conquerors and have been encouraged about their positive feedback.

According to one friend in the same sorority:

“The radiation to me was a piece of cake. The treatment for me at least, was a minute or less. Doesn’t hurt at all. You may feel a bit tired towards the end of all of your sessions...for me, it was accumulative. Pretty straight forward and easy.”

I chose to sideline the feedback from a couple of other ladies who shared more sombre experiences of fatigue and pain. “That will not be me,” I say, but who really knows. I should trust my body but…

Plus in the scope of it all, radiation is the lesser of two evils, the second being chemo. The only downside of the treatment is the daily schlep to the hospital during Hong Kong’s steamy summer.

On Sunday, I return from Bali, with a bit of colour (sun splashed and in fairly good spirits), and fun memories of hunting for Komodo dragons, readying myself for the boxing ring.

The next day I receive a call from the cancer team at Queen Mary. Reminder: radiation preparation starts July 2 and treatment the day after. Don’t forget, arrive on time. Uh huh, sure. No problem. Gulp.

When I was first told about radiation by the breast surgeon, the treatment sounded simple enough and didn’t freak me out. It is short and snappy – less than 10 minutes of lying under the mega machine that delivers the external radiation beam. Common side effects are fatigue, and effects are similar to a sun burn. Most patients receive 30 rounds of radiation five days over six weeks.

I am a special case. Tight on time, the cancer team decided to shorten my treatment to three weeks but up the dosage. I later learn that the treatment is sometimes used for very early stage cancer patients (stage 0).

But it’s different when you step foot in the cancer ward (there is something sombre about that experience alone).

“Courage Mon Ami,” a friend reminded me. Outside I am stoic, inside I am Jello.

I am careful to line up a small group of ladies to accompany me daily to the treatments. I am told by those who have been there and done it, that moral and emotional support is essential. The aunt is the first to step up to the plate and says she will accompany me every day, and a social worker from the Hong Kong Breast Cancer Foundation says she will find someone to accompany me too.

Cancer, as I’ve come to fast discover, is as much if not more mental as it is physical, consistently testing the body and the spirit. Survivors maintain their spirit, but how easy is it to lose that grasp, to let the optimism slip.

On July 3 the radiation waiting room is fairly sparse as I am the first customer after lunch. The day before, I spent about an hour plus in the simulator machine, getting tattooed and marked, and making sure that the mould (a silhouette of my body that I am supposed to lie in) fits. We do a test run. The process is like pulling teeth. I am tattooed and marked in the necessity of precision to deliver the radiation beam. This is a test of patience, of being exposed to a medical team of strangers who poke and prod and mark me.

I feel like I am losing my mental grasp and start breathing deeper, and am reminded sternly by a technician that I must stay very still otherwise they might zap the wrong area. The irony is that being still has never been my forte. I am a fidgety person by nature, and have even been kicked out of meditation sessions for moving too much.

The first session is tough and lasts nearly two hours, because they want to recheck the markings. I need to place my arms above my head like a streamline in swimming. I can’t breathe too hard. I need to pretend that I am a sphinx.

A different radiology team greets me. They look very young except for a middle-aged technician named Rainy who has a super warm smile. The table under the machine hard, the air cold, the room – except for an art therapy panel that shows a fall foliage landscape (fall in Hong Kong?) – is grey and depressing. “How much longer?” I ask Rainy. “We’re getting there,” she says. After forever, they tell me they are ready to start the treatment.

Something changes, the air stands still as does my breath. It is the same feeling I had when an ex-boyfriend and I went into the shark tank to take pictures in the Bahamas. The sharks were mostly nurse sharks and bottom feeders. I was less terrified of them than being submerged under the water. There is the feeling of being trapped and knowing that as much as you talk or scream no one can hear you.

Rainy tells me that they will step out of the room and it will last maybe five minutes. I know very well that in these five minutes I will be all alone. I must stay still, I must stay positive, there is no where else to go.

The door shuts, lights switch off, the red light turn on along with a jarring beep, and the machine moves over to me. I count forwards then backwards. What is my favourite song? I search desperately for a favourite memory. My heart is beating hard now. I am fighting the urge now to sit up and say, “I want to get out of here.” I swallow my breath and repeat to myself, “This is all good, this is very good, everything will be fine.” I wrack my brain for the lyrics to Somewhere Over the Rainbow.

And before I know it the lights flip on, the crew returns, and I am told it is over. Only 14 more to go and it will be easier, Rainy reminds me.

Outside the aunt greets me, she looks spent. We are both spent. The waiting room is filling up with other anxious patients. I am oddly enough on the verge of tears. Maybe it’s the exhaustion from the stress of being submerged for so long. I can finally exhale for now. “Let’s go and eat,” the aunt says. Food is a good way to forget about reality although temporarily. I talk about the komodo dragons and the sunsets I saw in Bali and she smiles. You see there is much to be happy about, she says. I nod and smile, fighting hard to keep sadness at bay. Think Komodo dragons, next time.