Caution! This blog post contains photos of my breast burned by radiation.
Radiation from the Sun. Radiation Oncology. Radiation burns.
I have almost completed 20 rounds of radiation to my right breast … the final steps in my Triple Negative Breast Cancer treatment plan. The first 16 rounds of dose dense radiation were beamed into my whole breast and underarm from side angles. Its calculated trajectories would have grazed my chest wall and lung since my 3.5cm tumour was only 0.7cm away from my chest wall. Too close for the oncologists’ comfort. Today I got my first of four “boosts” … radiation targeted directly at the tumour site. A smaller area, but the photons were shot from above and went right through my lung. I will bear scars on my lung with some reduced breathing capacity. The Radiation Oncologist told me only an Olympic level athlete would notice. We’ll see.
Radiation fascinates me. Much more so that chemo, which was discovered with mustard gas. Lots of physics involved in each patient’s plan so they can deliver an optimal tumouricidal radiation dose to the cancer cells. It’s like stepping behind the camera of a riveting and mindblowing sci-fi. Being a technologista, I had dig into Radiation Oncology research and read manuals. Most of my treatment was done by an old – circa 2011 – Siemens Artiste linear accelerator (LINAC) called Unit #5. When the old clunker broke down, they had to redo my treatment plan for the marginally newer Elekta Infinity LINACs and move me to Unit #2, 4 and 6. Unit #2 is giving me my boosters.
Here is my view and reflection looking up at the Electa LINAC … Venus by Bananarama played from the chamber’s speakers.
I travel to the Durham Regional Cancer Centre every week day for a 20 minute appointment. Radiation is always in the basement because each of those beasts weight about 18,000lbs! Then there are bunker walls to keep the staff alive.
The Radiation Technician calls me in from the large waiting room and walks with me to my Unit, chatting about the weather and my day. I change from the waist up into hospital gowns on the front and back and await my turn in the chamber. The two or three technicians position me into an exact spot on the table using the green lasers to line up the little blue dots that were tattooed onto my skin. My arms and hands are held above my head in stirrups and I have to remain perfectly still (but breathe normally) for the treatment. They measure my side with a ruler to verify depth. One will ask the other for a “half centimetre turn” and I will be told to “relax and not help” then rolled slightly to the right in my gown. My breast and shoulder are nudged into place with cold fingers. When happy with my placement, they will leave the Radiation Chamber and close the blast doors.
Radiofrequency waves are pulsed into the long arm as electrons are released. The radiofrequency waves move the electrons quickly – approaching the speed of light – through copper cells in the arm, bypassing magnets and coils around the arm, which all help to focus the beam to the size of a pinhead. The beam races through the flight tube and is bent with magnets, which further reduces and focuses the beam to 1mm. Everything in the arm is water-cooled. The electrons collide with a target and create energy – the xray beam. The amount can be fine-tuned to deliver the right amount of radiation to the right spot. The round head at the end of the gantry has a collimator to conform the photons to shape of the planned target. It kind of reminds me of pin art, except the collimator leaves a hole in the shape you want, and blocks the xrays from hitting anything else. In my photo above, you can see the collimator’s outline in the cyan blue light in the middle of the pink plate.
If you really want the long form explanation, view this video: Elekta – How a Linear Accelerator Works
We videotaped my second to last final “regular treatment” radiation session on Unit #5 on Hallowe’en. I wore my Ariel red wig that day. Almost five minutes of nothing in this video but a lifetime for me. Meatloaf’s Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad played softly in the background.
The file is too large to upload here, so I have posted it on my Pink Dot Detour Facebook wall @ Radiation #15 on Oct 31, 2017
As the Radiation Technicians leave the room and close the blast doors, I am left alone for around four minutes with the music and my thoughts. I usually watch the LINAC and listen to its hum. For the first radiation treatment, I counted the seconds of the radiation blasts, but after that I talked – in my head – to the machine. Willing it to do a good job and kill any traces of cancer. I asked it to do what it had to do, but hoped my skin would be spared. It did the best it could.
If you watch this video, you can see me motionless, but imagine what races through my mind. Will I get leukemia from the radiation? I now have a 30-40% higher risk (from my treatment). I wonder if my cells simmer? Will my breast ever look the same? Will I ever feel the same? Is the cancer gone? Please God, let the cancer be gone. I can’t do this again. A tear rolls out the side of my eye. My nose runs but I remain frozen to make sure I don’t move.
I am alone. No one can do this for me. I walk through the fire alone.
At -3:35 and -1:43 you can see radiation photon particles hitting the camera sensor. Best seen during the long blast to each side. They look like flying sparks, most easiest to spot against the blue wall. I will never forget the sound as the beast zapped me “eeeeeeeeeee – EEEEEEEEEEE – eeeeee – EEEEEEEEEEE – eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee ” for 30 long seconds in that first beam on each side.
If you watch ‘til the almost end to the -:25 second mark, I kiss my finger tips and tap Unit #5, in thanks for killing my cancer.
My breast has a cone of red from my armpit to my sternum. The nipple looks just like a toasted pink marshmallow. My once smooth, pink areola and nipple have puffed up, their edges now browned and charred. The skin at the bottom of my breast is dimpled and may toughen up. One of the plans with reconstruction for that breast is to insert tummy fat with stem cells to regenerate the skin while perking every one up with inserts. Everything is off kilter from surgery and skin pulling from the burns. This is the worst it’s looked. The photo is a mirror image, so the line slicing into the left of my nipple is the remnant incision from my lumpectomy. The scar in the upper left is the sentinal node surgery scar. The brown armpit is the burn.
I promised the real shit from the real journey on this blog. No sugar coating.
Really horrible angle. And I am sure some will question my sanity again by putting this image out there. But I couldn’t find a radiated breast that looked like mine in googled images. So I decided to swallow my pride and put this out there. For all the women (and men) who may go through radiation. It’s not sexy – and not meant to be – it’s not photoshopped. And it’s less severe than many!
I am told my radiation burn is minor – with a few charred spots that fell off – and that my breast is doing quite well, considering.
It’s not overly painful, like a real sunburn, but the itch is intensely insane. It’s deep in the breast below my very sensitive and burning nipple … which I can’t scratch lest I break the skin. I apply hydrocortisone cream over the surface to reduce the itch. Then slather a thick moisturizing cream on three times daily. I also soak a towel in sterilized saline solution which I make daily and drape the towel over my breast for 30 minutes. The soak helps draw out the burn, sloughs off the dying skin, while the saline helps heal me.
Radiation burns can run from first-degree pinkish sunburns to second degree blisters to third-degree tissue damage.
It reminds me of Venus, Mars or the storm that continually rages on Jupiter. Sorry for the dog hair on the camera! Whoops. I don’t have any hair on my chest. Really.
I just hope the were-breast changes back to its normal human form soon.
P.S. It’s now two days after I have completed radiation. My breast has 2nd degree burns and is peeling, despite the prescription creams. I can’t get dressed.
A week later and it’s much better! Salt baths REALLY help.
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