What radiation was like

As I sat down to review and record my thoughts and feelings about my anti-cancer program, I came to realize that I’ve not shared much of anything about the radiation treatment process itself. I want to journal that because I’m pretty sure now that it’s all over, I’ll soon forget. Perhaps much like (some) mothers “forget” the intensity of their labor pains over time after giving birth (and no, I’m not comparing pains at all).

This kind of forgetting does not erase memory, it lays the emotion surrounding the memory to rest.

Clarissa Pinkola Estes

So, this post is for anyone who needs to start radiation and wants to know what it’s like, what to expect. As I’ll be writing from memory, which is always suspect, I invite others with experience to share in the comments. Hopefully there will be enough information here for someone to feel forewarned, hence forearmed.

First, a week before the initial radiation session, I underwent a CT scan (computerized tomography scan) used to plan the radiation therapy. I’ve seen images of CT machines that take the entire body inside, but the one used on me was more like pushing me through a donut.

For me, the only bothersome part was laying there topless with my arms over my head in what felt like a refrigerator. The room probably wasn’t as cold as it felt to me but I’d been feeling very sensitive to any cool air and I can’t say what’s caused that. One of the kind technicians, all female, put a blanket over my legs.

Remember there’s no such thing as a small act of kindness. Every act creates a ripple with no logical end.

Scott Adams

I don’t remember (or note) exactly how long this painless procedure took, but less than an hour, I’d say.

Next, on that same day, I was escorted to a small room to get fitted for what is called a mask. Again, an all-female team asked me to remove my clothing from the waist up and then to lie down on my back on a table. Being European-raised, I’m generally not shy about nudity and I decided not to bother to be embarrassed about my mangled breast. I’m sure they’ve seen it all before.

One of the technicians took a large square of thermoplastic and placed it in a tub of hot water to soften it. I asked whether it would feel hot and was told “a bit” but it really wasn’t at all. The warm, wet plastic mesh film was then placed across my chest and abdomen area, just below my belly button, and it formed to fit the contours of my body. It took only a matter of minutes for the mask to cool down and harden. This mask was used in every session to immobilize me in order to make sure the radiation is delivered to the exact locations according to plan.

radiation frame or mask
My mask

My radiation therapy sessions started on January 26, 2022, and continued daily on weekdays except on a couple of holidays and the day I went in for my herceptin infusion. The initial session was slightly longer, by about 30 minutes, than the subsequent 25-minute ones, as they had to set things up. I didn’t delve into the details of what, why, or how.

In my case, there were 16 radiation sessions. That number sits among the many bones of contention I’ve had with my oncologist (for example, here and here). (I can’t remember whether I’ve mentioned this one before.) He had been set to refer me to a more traditional program of 33 sessions; many hospitals here still follow this. Fortunately, I had remembered my surgeon saying that 16 sessions of double doses of radiation was the new accepted protocol. I did my research and insisted he refer me to a radiation oncologist willing and able to use the shorter number of cycles.

Another relevant issue for me was the hospital location. I was not keen to ask my honey to drive me daily to a hospital 30 or more minutes from our home. The universe was with me, as again a friend mentioned a teaching hospital less than five kilometers away, and that worked out well for us.

The question arose whether the radiation machine at this older hospital was up to the job. My radiation oncologist admitted that other hospitals had newer machines, but after our discussion, I felt confident that it would achieve what was intended for me. Sort of like knowing that a well-kept 2005 model car will drive from A to B as effectively as a top-of-the-line new car. As it turned out, the machine used to radiate me was a 2018 model LINAC.

a linear accelerator (LINAC)
The LINAC

Generally, the procedure in each session was the same:

  • I stepped into the room through thick double doors that are closed while I was radiated
  • I removed my top, bra, face shield, and shoes
  • I climbed up onto a specialized table and lay down on my back
  • My position was jiggled until the technician could lock the mask firmly onto the table
  • I placed my arms well over my head and turned my face left, away from my right breast
  • The machine whirled around me making noises for 20-25 minutes
  • The technician came in and unlocked the frame
  • I got off the table, got dressed, and I was done

The big question asked is: is the radiation itself painful? And I’m happy to report that there is absolutely no discomfort with the procedure beyond having to lay still for the duration.

I can imagine that some women feel somewhat distressed by not being able to move for that length of time. Our “busy” world has made many of us uncomfortable with being alone and doing nothing.

In order to be open to creativity, one must have the capacity for constructive use of solitude. One must overcome the fear of being alone.

Rollo May

I kept my brain occupied with problem-solving or imagining pleasant places I’ve been, or just enjoying the alone-time, letting whatever wanted to percolate up to do so. In any event, for me, the session times passed quickly without anything remarkable, but for that one little blip I wrote about before.

Besides the daily time-suck of going and coming to the hospital, waiting for my turn, and undergoing the radiation, while I was being treated, I suffered little. I tolerated it all rather well. I had made space for this in my life. It may be different for other women (and I do hope others who have undergone this treatment will pipe in).

Only in these past weeks after the sessions did I experience some discomfort. I had been alerted to the possibility of blisters popping up later and to use copious amounts of organic aloe vera daily on the areas radiated. And I did. Although I did not develop any open sores, I did suffer an allergic reaction in the form of a raw red rash on my chest that also spread to my breast and underarm. My last session was February 21, and it is only today, March 29, that I can say the rash is totally gone.

And now I can truly say the worst is behind me—at least that is my expectation. There’s a lingering tingling in my fingers and toes (peripheral neuropathy) from the chemo. I have muscle mass to regain. My hair will grow back. But that is well within my tolerance level.

I do a little happy dance and celebrate this day.

Today I choose life. Every morning when I wake up, I can choose joy, happiness, negativity, pain… To feel the freedom that comes from being able to continue to make mistakes and choices – today I choose to feel life, not to deny my humanity but embrace it.

Kevyn Aucoin

PS. I’d be tickled to hear not only from people who have experienced radiation treatments, but from anyone who has overcome challenges or just wants to share a thought or two.

10 comments

  • Thank you Francisca for allowing us to go through the radiation treatment with you. Very informative. Like an “ahh-so” kind of way. Happy that this treatment is done. And looking forward to your continued health and healing. Here’s to dancing!

  • I’m delighted with you to have all this/that behind you – and remember my own casting when I was 13. I needed a brace (a ‘bucket’) for reducing the severity (not correcting which wasn’t possible at the time without surgery) of genetic scoliosis (curved spine).

    They’d wanted to sedate me completely and Mom insisted that I not be subjected to anything with any extra risk…so I was challenged to be fully awake and what a LOVELY experience it was! It was a teaching hospital so I was ushered into an operating theater. I had on a gown and panties. Then asked and asked permission: can I be touched? Can they put two layers of elastic sheath around my torso? Can we remove my gown? I was then asked to lay facing down on a table with many metal adjustment levers but BEST, asked if it was okay if I would allow medical students to observe. Yes, BEST. They shuffled in and respectfully around – I was like a display, but felt no embarrassment, fear or shyness – I had a whole team of respect around me.

    Then, surrounded by (still, in the ’70’s) mostly male 20-something-year-old medical students resplendent and so handsome to my adolescent-self in their white coats, I was asked and asked again about my comfort as those levers moved adjustment straps to straighten my spine, followed by this question: ‘would I allow casting plaster and material (warmed, nearly hot) massaged over those torso sheaths and my perfectly straight spine?’. They took 8 inch by 3-ish pieces of wet and warm strips and layered them over and over to ‘cast’ my torso.

    It felt like HEAVEN.

    The orthopaedic surgeon finally asked me to stand. Finally chilled he asked if he could use a SAW to get the cast off and showed me on his double layered gloves how the saw simply went back and forth to cut through with ease and not the least-bit of danger. In minutes the cut was made and I was free.

    I wore the brace that was made from that cast for two years (Milwaukee Bucket) and quite loved it!

    I trust you can tell this is a lovely memory: it goes to show that we can go through such experiences without suffering. It can be a part of life that we navigate as we do any difference and change.

    Love your blog!

    • I am equally delighted to hear the story of your positive medical experience at the tender age of 13 with what could have been viewed with fear and apprehension. So much (if not all) of what we live is experienced through the lenses we choose to wear. Amazing you! Thanks for sharing, Joan. 🌸💜🌸

      PS. I searched for an image of Milwaukee Bucket and had to smile with what came up. 😉🙂

  • Thank you for sharing the world inside radiation. I took care of my sister during her chemotherapy but during radiation, she opted to do it herself. Now I have an idea what she went through. My sister is ok now, almost ten years in remission. I am so happy that you are done with the radiation, Francisca. And so glad that you are on the road to recovery.

    • So happy for your sister, Gayle… 🌸💜🌸 and I would say, especially after such a long time, that she is cancer-free… or better yet, healthy! The word “remission” feels to me like the sword of Damocles hangs over her head… no need for it. Remember, I, too, consider myself cancer-free. The arduous treatment program has been to alter the receptivity of my cells to cell-splitting, that is, the risk of other cancers growing. 🌸🙏🌸

  • No radiation treatment but I dance and wiggle the little dance that you mention every day !

  • I am happy all this is over for you.
    Even if it wasn’t painful this seems to me like the perfect nightmare.

    But then we humans often cope amazingly well in moments of great stress. Maybe it is the adrenaline, maybe it is the will to survive, maybe because we have no other choice than to go with the flow of events?
    When I was teenager one of my fingers was teared off my hand and I still wonder how I was able to cope with it in a quiet and calm way. Something that still surprises me to this day. This is so unlike me.

    • Thanks, Sidney, and no, it was not a dream, but neither was it a nightmare… far from it, when I think of what others have to suffer. You may need to change your story about yourself, too… because you’ve already been given proof that your brain can remain calm under duress. The brain is a wonderful and in most ways mysterious thing, but the science is pretty clear that neuroplasticity allows us to adapt to most events life throws at us… hence the saying: what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. 🌸🙏🌸 It was a delight to see you today! 🌸💜🌸

By Francisca

Want to know when I post?

Enter your email address to subscribe to my journal and receive notifications of my new posts by email.