Radiation

Radiation, this is an experience that when I describe it, my friends laugh and probably do not believe me. Most likely because I begin the conversation by referencing the Starship Enterprise. That is the closest I can come to describing the radiation machine. You lay on a table, similar to a gurney. The bulk of the machine is a large disk hanging over the table, the machine also has outriggers that come up during the treatment, hence giving me the impression of a space ship. The disk slowly moves around you as you lay on the table, while at intervals striking your cancer with bursts of radiation. At the same time you are given a scan to ensure that the treatment is doing what they intend for it to do. All the while you must lay completely still.

In order to help you lay as still as possible before your treatment begins you are placed in a mold, an impression is made of your body lying in the position most beneficial to your treatment. I think of the mold as being a bean bag that squishes around you until you are in the perfect position. For some reason the bean bag will become firm and the radiation therapist will use it to help set you up for future treatments. In the beginning you are scanned and tattooed so that the radiation therapist will have a “target” to shoot at. These tattoos you will keep as a reminder of your battle with cancer.

If you are being treated for brain cancer a mold will be made for you that resembles a baseball catcher’s face guard. I recall a young woman leaving the center with such a contraption in her hand, she was laughing and swinging it around, I assumed that she had completed her treatment.

I will constantly praise the staff who cared for me. It is not easy laying half naked on a table while a spaceship turns around you. They are able to place you at ease and this treatment is intense, it is frightening. You are given a panic button to squeeze in case you need assistance. I did once. Within seconds a therapist was at my side, I was feeling strange and unable to describe my symptoms, I was taken by wheelchair to a nurses station where my vitals were taken and my spouse was waiting. I just had a panic attack but it was handled as if it were a significant medical emergency and had it been such an emergency I would have been in very competent hands.

I do not know why, but radiation treatments tire you out. Perhaps it is the internal battle with your cancer cells, that they are being beaten down with each treatment. Perhaps it is that you must travel each day to the cancer center for your treatments for a term of approximately 6 weeks. Or it just may be psychological, I am not a doctor and will never claim to have medical information, I am just telling you my impressions.

As your treatment progresses you may become familiar with others who are scheduled at or near your treatment times. The center I went to has separate rooms for each machine. As we waited for our appointment, we traded “war stories” with other patients. Some had good prognosis others had been through this before and were fighting a valiant fight. I met a man who had throat cancer, his chemotherapy caused significant nausea, his wife told us that it was just like throwing up nails. We met a family where the son-in-law was an old high school friend, the father was frail and they were so concerned. Unfortunately we saw his obituary a few weeks later.

I started checking the obituaries to see if any of our new friends had lost their fight. Each obit would cause a stormy feeling in my gut. It is not fair, these people were working hard to beat the demon within them. They had families, they had spouses, children, friends and co-workers, whose lives were now forever changed. A deep hole now touched each person’s life. A hole that could not be filled.

Once in a while a success story would emerge, a person might emerge from the treatment room jovially stating that they were free. Our hopes and prayers were not only with our new friend for his or her future, but for ours as well. Each person in those waiting rooms hoped to be told that the radiation had beaten the cancer cells down, that they would received the news that their tumor(s) were no longer there, or that they were just necrotic tissue. This was my hope.

My treatment plan was to have some really tough chemotherapy that would kick Adolph’s butt. At the same time I would take radiation treatment that hopefully would shred the tumor and all that would be left is necrotic tissue. My goal was a PET scan in June that would not “light up” cancer cells, a scan that would show a dark mess in my lung where my tumor had once been. On a PET (positron emission tomography) scan, a radioactive tracer lights up in places where cancer cells are, hence allowing your doctors to determine if you were cancer free. In my case the scan lit up. We hoped that it was a false positive, just inflamed tissue. This turned out to be bad news and brought me onto another path, the one that I share with you through this Blog.

I have recently had a CT scan that shows some unusual growth, areas that are concerning to the radiologist and my oncologist. I will have another PET scan this afternoon and get the results in a few days, hopefully my body does not glow like an internal Christmas display. If it does, we have discussed further radiation therapy, so I may have another encounter with the Starship Enterprise in my future.

Cindy McIntire

About Cindy McIntire

Cindy is a lifelong resident of Waldo County, she is a wife and mother of three adult children. She was diagnosed with small cell carcinoma in her left lung in January 2014. Statistically only 2% of the people who are diagnosed with this disease survive more than 5 years. After trying to find literature written by others in her situation, Cindy chose to write this blog, in hopes that it may serve as a rough trail map for those who may follow.