Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Radiation and Other Fun Stuff

I know. These days I seem to wait longer between each blog post.  There’s a reason.  I am deliriously tired.  Many ask, “Why? Aren’t you finished with chemo?”  Yes. My last chemo infusion was Nov. 14 and I was expecting to have some energy afterwards. 
“Radiation is a cake walk compared to chemotherapy!”  Huh? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that comment from fellow cancer fighters.  On the misery spectrum, it’s hard to top days 2-5 after a chemo infusion, but after that it’s not so bad...at least for the regimen Dr. Moss gave me.  I was no longer sick to my stomach, felt tired, but could perform normal tasks, as long as it didn’t tax my chemo brain. 
Radiation has been much more difficult for me.  It might be because of the fact that I’m two hours from home and miss my guys (although I'm ever-so-grateful for the hospitality of Lauren & Jesse and Liz & Barry!).  Also, the pain in my shoulder seems to get worse with each treatment. I’ll explain the shoulder pain a little later.

Let me first explain a few facts about radiation found in my booklet named “Radiation and You”, another piece of reading material given to me recently. 
“…More than half (about 60%) of people with cancer get radiation therapy…Given in high doses, radiation kills or slows the growth of cancer cells….Radiation therapy does not kill the cancer cells right away.  It takes days or weeks of treatment before cancer cells start to die.  Then, cancer cells keep dying for weeks or months after radiation therapy ends….radiation not only kills or slows the growth of cancer cells, it can also affect nearby healthy cells.  The healthy cells almost always recover after treatment is over.  But sometimes people may have side effects that do not get better or are severe.”
Let’s rewind back to December 2.  That was the day I had my “radiation simulation”.   After changing into a purple-ish colored gown (from the waist up), the sweet-voiced radiation technician removed the gown and had me lie flat on my back.  I was told to grasp the handle bar over my head (OW! Intense shoulder pain!).   She placed a moldable pillow under my head and asked me to turn my head to the right.  She then removed the pillow, told me to relax my arms (whew!), sprayed the pillow with something and wrote my name on it.  “This will keep you from moving your head during treatment.  Now it’s time to get you set up in the computer.  “Put your arms over your head again and grasp the bar.”  If you’re an avid Keeping You Abreast “fan”, you’ve read the blog post titled “The Incident” posted in August.  It’s the story of our 25th anniversary weekend gone awry.  A would-be romantic candlelit bubble bath in a Jacuzzi turned into a fiasco when I slipped on the tiled tub and landed on my elbow.  Two years later, a chiropractor held up my x-ray to the light showing a partially dislocated shoulder.   Yes. That’s how I roll.  I wait until I can no longer function before opening Pandora’s box of scary diagnoses. 

Back to the radiation simulation….Holding my left arm over my head for five minutes is excruciating.   On that day, I had to do it for over an hour.  I was distracted from the pain when the technician drew little dots and lines all over my left breast, cleavage, and upper chest.  I made a joke about my bikini exposing the marks at the beach that weekend.  She laughed like she didn’t hear that every day.  How kind. 
Then the sweet radiation technician with the baby voice said,
“Now I need to put wire tape over your incisions.  She quickly saw the one in my armpit from my lymph node dissection and guided the tape over it.  She searched all over looking for the scar from the tumor removal.  She turned the lights brighter in the room and looked closer for it, her face only inches from my breast.  After I watched her search for a couple of minutes (I get my entertainment wherever I can these days), I pointed to my areola.  That’s the 2nd time I’ve ever typed that word.
She gasped.  “OMG!!  Who’s your surgeon?”  I was happy to know that I had the most invisible scar she’d ever seen but perplexed by the fact that she didn’t seem to notice the purple golf ball a few inches below it.   “Dr. A.J.,” I said.
“He’s a great surgeon…and easy on the eyes,” she said. We both laughed.  “That, he is.”
Finally it was time for my tats.  I was a little worried about the pain but then remembered that horrible drain in my armpit and the swelling eggplant I had a couple of months ago.  I’ve got this.  She said, “First the ink…then the needle…”  She repeated that procedure four times.  I barely felt one of them.  The other four…nothing!  Whew.  Yes, I now have five tattoos.  They are small blue dots-all five of them-and they’re the size of a freckle.  I have lots of freckles on my chest so, although my tattoos are blue, they blend in with the rest of them.   So that every radiation treatment isn’t a Where’s Waldo game, they covered the tattoos with clear tape and drew a big black dot over the freckle with a Sharpie pen.  I contemplated the logic in that procedure, but I kept quiet.  The answer might have meant one more minute of shoulder torture.  I’m not supposed to remove the tape until radiation treatment is over the end of January.  All I can say is…I’m…. too sexy for my shirrrrrt.

She spent over an hour aligning me (the dots on my chest) with the laser that would soon be pointed at various locations on my chest and armpit. It’s very important to lie completely still during every treatment.   A cough could mean accidental radiation of my heart or lungs.

My first of 33 daily (Mon-Fri) visits was a week later.   I was ready to get this ball rolling and get back to normal. Ok. A new normal.  My shoulder was still throbbing and burning from the simulation and I was dreading one more minute of the bar above my head.  I talked to Dr. Matar, my radiation oncologist, about my shoulder and she recommended physical therapy.  I had already left a message for a PT at Baptist Health, but no response.  I’m beginning to see unreturned calls and bad vibes as a sign from above that it simply wasn’t meant to be.  What used to be frustration now makes me smile.  Dr. Matar called Stephanie, a P.T. with St. Joseph and scheduled an appointment for that week. 
I’ve heard people talk about physical therapy and how rigorous and painful it can be.   My PT Stephanie calmed my fears immediately.  “You’re considered to be a STAR patient,” she said.  I don’t recall if that’s an acronym for something like Shoulder Torture for Ann Ritchey. (Ritchey is my maiden name.  It would have been funnier had I been considered a STAD patient).  Well, it turns out that I get an “easy pass”, all because I checked yes to the cancer box.
After Stephanie’s long list of questions and balance tests, she tested my mobility of my right arm.  She asked me to bend my right arm and touch my elbow to my ear. No problem.  180 degree mobility. “Try doing the same with your left arm and stop when you feel pain.”  90 degree mobility. 
“How long has it been like this?” she asked.  The shock on her face when I told her two years confirmed what I already knew:  I had put myself last on the list. Actually, I thought it would get better.  I knew my trips to the chiropractor helped but I always used work as my excuse for not going regularly.  As for physical therapy, I was just afraid of the pain.
Stephanie gave me a series of easy exercises to do while at home.  I’ve done them, although not faithfully this past week.
I’ve had a persistent cough and was told in the beginning that it’s a common symptom of radiation to the chest area.  Lauren played nurse last night bringing me various medicines in bed because I was too weak to get out of bed. 

My cough has become so deep and painful this past week that I nearly threw up several times after a coughing fit.  After listening to my chest, Dr. Matar gave me a prescription for an antibiotic and worried about me driving myself home.  I could hardly catch my breath from a 40 pace walk.  After I assured her I was fine, she wished me a Merry Christmas.   I know it will be because I get two days of reprieve during my treatment: Christmas Day and New Years Day.    Lauren, Jesse, Jordan, Oriana, Gail, Shane, Jeff and I celebrated Christmas on Sunday.   I get to be home for 43 hours total and spend Christmas Eve and Christmas Day with Jeff and Buddy.   

On my way out of town, I saw a runner on Man-O-War and cried.  I've never wished for good health for myself as a Christmas gift.  In the past, I envied those who took weeks off and traveled the world at a whim, had their children's tuition saved or paid before they started school, and all those lucky souls who live in San Francisco.  Now all I want is to be healthy.   

As I look at the clock, I realize that I’m down to 35 hours.  It’s time to close my laptop and make it count.  Merry Christmas to all of you! I’ll try not to wait so long before my next post.

God bless all of the caring and friendly staff at St Joseph Radiation Oncology, who also only get a two day reprieve!


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