5 Things You May Not Know About Radiation Treatments

radiationI’m now on Day 18 of my 33 radiation treatments. Radiation has been a much better experience for me than chemo was.  Today I thought I’d share 5 things I didn’t about radiation treatments until I started them.

1) Radiation therapy is used to kill cancer cells.  Sometimes women just have surgery and radiation. Sometimes surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation are all three used. Some women just have surgery.  Every case is different and it is dependent on the type of cancer and the stage of cancer.

2) The primary side effects of radiation used in breast cancer treatment are fatigue and a burn similar to a bad sunburn.  I have experienced some fatigue and some burning. The burning can cause the skin to peel. I have not experienced peeling at this point. When I asked my doctor why radiation causes fatigue, he explained that it is similar to when you spend a day in the sun and then you come inside and want to take a nap. When you’ve spent a day in the sun, you are getting UV radiation from the sun. It causes fatigue in the body whether you are getting it from the sun or from a machine.

3) The radiation treatment treats the whole breast, not just the spot where the cancer was.  My “burn” is from the middle of my chest, across the breast, to under my arm.  I have 30 full breast radiation treatments and 3 “boosters” that will be focused right on the spot where my cancer was removed in surgery.  That makes a total of 33 treatments.

4) Radiation happens daily. I go Monday-Friday everyday at 2:20 pm. Each treatment is only about 7 minutes in length, so while it’s daily, it doesn’t take too long.

5) Radiation isn’t painful at all. I don’t feel anything during treatment. The skin tenderness happens over time.  Initially they cover your chest with different sharpie markings protected by clear stickers which guide the techs to line up the machine correctly. Sometimes they give you some small “dot” tattoos to replace the stickers. There’s a little “sting” when getting the tattoo, but other than that, there’s nothing painful about the actual radiation treatment.

Here’s a basic “photo tour” of radiation:

This is the dressing room where you undress from the waist up and put on a cape.

This is the dressing room where you undress from the waist up and put on a cape.

Waiting for my treatment

Waiting for my treatment

This is my own personal mold that is under the white sheet. This keeps my head and right arm in a special position that assures that the radiation goes where it needs to go.

This is my own personal mold that is under the white sheet. This keeps my head and right arm in a special position that assures that the radiation goes where it needs to go.

The radiation machine

The radiation machine

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’ve had so many people ask about radiation, that I decided to videotape one of my treatments. If you want to know what a radiation treatment is like, you can watch the video! (If you receive my posts by email and can’t access the video, you can find it here.)

For more of an update on my cancer journey, you can check out my latest Caring Bridge post.

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6 Responses to 5 Things You May Not Know About Radiation Treatments

  1. Tina Blankenship says:

    I would add that everyone’s experience with radiation will be different depending on their genetics, skin coloring and how well they tan. My experience with radiation was WAY worse than chemo, but I’m fair skinned, blonde, blue-eyed with red pigments…nearly the recipe for bad burns. :/ The process of getting radiation wasn’t painful for me but the positioning process was uncomfortable and in the later weeks, it was painful. I used to swear they stuck my right elbow into my left ear to get me in the right position. But I suspect the level of discomfort may also be related to whether you had a lumpectomy, mastectomy or reconstruction too.

    One thing I did not know and you did not mention, was that with radiation you will receive a series of tiny tattoos…permanent tattoos. Mine are blue dots but I don’t know if that’s standard. Each time a patient climbs up on the beaming table, the table is positioned so that those lazer looking lights in the video match up with the positions of the tattoos. It must be done daily to ensure the beams are being shot at the exact spots each day. Sometimes, as tissue swells or shrinks they have to do things to keep that exact position in place. I can’t tell you how many times I was taped and strapped onto the table to keep those tats in line. lol

    I don’t think people understand radiation as well. While movies have dramatized the chemo season of cancer, most ignore and gloss over radiation processes or complications.

    One the bright side, you do bounce back (energy wise) after radiation MUCH faster than chemo!

    • JillSavage says:

      Tina, good additional info! I have heard about the tattoos but I don’t have them yet. I still have stickers on my chest that they line up to get me in the right positions.

  2. Lynn Cowell says:

    Jill – thank you so much! For those of us who are praying for you, it helps us picture you as we are praying for you!

    You are so brave, friend!

  3. Karen Howell says:

    Very good description! Lynn mentioned the tattoos. I opted for Sharpie marks rather than the permanent markings. I felt like I had been “marked” enough and I didn’t want to add more. :-) My radiation oncologist recommended Aquaphor for my skin. Some folks may have used it for kids in diapers. I tend to get sunburn very easily, and I was surprised to only get a couple of blisters from the treatments. I know it’s different for different folks. The techs covered my chest with a layer of some kind of bubble wrap during many of the treatments. I am not sure that I understand exactly what it was for. My skin stayed a shade or so darker in the treated area for about 2 years. Now it looks pretty much normal in color. The radiation treatment was a cake-walk compared to the chemo. I hope yours is effective and that you don’t have much skin irritation. I enjoy your writing and I continue to lift you up to the Great Physician. Fight on!

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