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Surviving radiation therapy – one self-caring act at a time

Posted in Health

hoping for better sign“You look so vibrant and healthy. May I ask – are you here for radiation therapy?”
I plop myself and my giant bag, a bottle of water and a banana on one of the pastel couches and I look up at the voice that has been addressing me. Slightly sweaty from a walk on the beach, on an unseasonably warm winter day, I am wearing my running outfit, and maybe the woman thought I came from the gym (I figured out quickly it’s a lot easier to hop on and off the radiation bed in sweats than a pencil skirt).

“Well, it’s only my first week. I feel fine.” I laugh.

The older woman has a pleasant and open face, cropped grey hair and a daughter by her side who reminds me of Lauren Hutton. It turns out she did indeed model in Milan in earlier days.

The older woman wants to know everything: how long does it last? what does it feel like? what are the side effects? I try to calm her and tell her the doctor and the nurses will tell her everything in great details. But here we are, trading cancer stories and looking for advice from those already in the trenches. First hand information – that is what I wanted too when I was first diagnosed. Doctors know so very much but, let’s face it, if they haven’t walked the same path, they can’t possibly know what anything really feels like.

So, what is it like? Friends and family ask. Well in the second week, I am here to tell you I don’t experience any fatigue (yet), my right boob is getting bigger and it is acquiring a tan without having been exposed to a single ray of sun. If I could now get the other breast to the same size, I would be experiencing, at least for a few weeks, the exhilaration of a B cup.

But I am getting ahead of myself. On my first appointment, a CAT scan mapped the area that would be radiated; three tiny dots were tattooed on my chest so I can be properly lined up (honestly, they are so small, I can’t even find them) and a cushion was molded to my upper body so I can hop on and off and get into position quickly. One gets the hang of it fast. Sometimes I feel I could stay longer in the pretty and spacious waiting room, chatting with the lady who comes after me and her husband. But the whole operation runs like clockwork.

A bright face appears behind the door and calls my name. A gown is already laid out in one of the changing rooms that are very reminiscent of Saks Fifth Avenue. I take off my top, put on the gown and march into the radiation room, which is dark, with music blasting, veering from pleasant jazz to hard rock, depending on which technician is working.

The machine itself is a round metal disk that moves around: 20 seconds on one side of my chest and 30 seconds or less on the other. The technicians line me up according to a green laser line that is reflected on my body. We talk of food, the weather, plans for the weekend. And five minutes later I am up and gone. Absolutely no pain but a weird feeling of discombobulation which I mentioned to the oncologist. “It might be caused by staying extremely still or your blood pressure taking longer to adjust when you get up.” Maybe. Eating something straight after seems to help the daze that sets in around my head for about an hour.

I am expecting to feel tired at some point despite my oncologist believing I have too much energy to even notice, and for my skin to eventually get burnt. Small price to pay. In a weird way, I even look forward to my appointment every day at noon: to the bright and cheery staff who genuinely take an interest, to the dark room and the warm blanket that make me wish I could linger, to the foodie nurse who gave me a jar of her precious preserved lemons. Just because. I think of some of the people I met as the bright side of cancer.

sunset on pchDespite a brutal 11 hour workday last Thursday, I am trying to be kind to myself for the duration and, encouraged by a post sofagirl forwarded to me titled “23 ways to treat yourself without buying anything”, I do something good for myself everyday. Here is what I have so far:

  • broke into the stash of frozen tortellini my mother made at Christmas and cooked some for an ordinary lunch on my own. Just to feel her love;
  • wore one of my prettiest and newest sweaters to work. Why on earth do we keep the “good stuff” for special occasions? How many special occasions occur in a week? A month? In the same vein, I am using “the good” china and glassware whenever the mood strikes me;
  • drove to radiation belting the Police’s “Bring on the Night”, much to the dismay of fellow motorists stuck at traffic lights next to the out of tune middle-aged woman. Felt brilliant. Should sing more often;
  • scheduled idle time to read all my favourite blogs and websites. Without a single ounce of guilt;
  • finally made a Japanese chicken noodle recipe I had always deemed too involved for an ordinary weekday supper. It turned out to be beyond delicious and worth the effort.

It’s hard for me to admit the treatment might force me to slow down, as much as I promised myself I would take it easy. I am trying to convince myself, and my body, that nothing has changed, that I am as strong as ever – in reality, I am not. And it is going to take a while, and a lot of acts of self-care, to get me there.

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22 Comments

  1. In the meantime, roll on that visit from the B cup fairy. Every cloud, eh, Jugs? ?

    February 9, 2016
    |Reply
    • camparigirl
      camparigirl

      Even lopsided, it’s still a thrill!

      February 10, 2016
      |Reply
  2. Glad to hear that you are pampering yourself. How lovely to have your mother’s meals ready at hand to dip into – that must be enormously comforting on several levels. I think of you often and wish you all good thoughts and positive energy.

    February 9, 2016
    |Reply
    • camparigirl
      camparigirl

      Thank you Susan. I learnt to bask in the good wishes of perfect strangers. They mean more than any of you will ever know.

      February 10, 2016
      |Reply
  3. This is the starting point of your recovery – pretty daunting admittedly, but it is a well trodden path and you will find your way along it. Having a positive attitude – as you do – is such a bonus. Keep on being kind to yourself, you deserve it.
    Don’t be afraid to ask for support, and learn to accept support when it is offered, whether it be a lift to the clinic, someone who will walk the dog, deliver food you fancy, or offering to do your shopping or washing, because it is important that you save your energy for getting through the treatment . I wish I were nearby and could be of practical support, but Beijing is a little too far!
    Sending you all good wishes and prayers for a speedy and happy outcome.
    As we South Africans say – Go well, stay well. xx

    February 9, 2016
    |Reply
    • camparigirl
      camparigirl

      Very wise. Now that I am confined to LA for 6 weeks with no option to go anywhere for the duration, a trip to Bejing sounds like the most fabulous thing to do! You are right. I learnt rather fast that people around me really wish to help and, as much as I am conditioned to resist, I started accepting the help. And guess what? It makes all involved feel a lot better.

      February 9, 2016
      |Reply
  4. Sending many positive vibes. And I love the beginning of your list of ways to treat yourself….keep doing that. 🙂

    February 9, 2016
    |Reply
    • camparigirl
      camparigirl

      I still have a mushroom lasagna to break into….

      February 9, 2016
      |Reply
  5. Oh I am sorry to hear of your diagnosis and treatment. I’m sending you oodles of positive thoughts but I know you will get all the help you need from sofagirl! Lots of love and good wishes for a successful course of treatment and an early recovery x

    February 9, 2016
    |Reply
    • camparigirl
      camparigirl

      That is very kind – thank you. And yes, sofagirl keeps me in check and lets me know when it is time to stop my whining, or when it is time to exit the dark tunnel!

      February 9, 2016
      |Reply
  6. I went to a workshop last year about chemotherapy and radiation. Before that I didn’t know how radiation therapy worked, and I was surprised to learn that the actual procedure is quite quick and simple (on the surface of it, anyway).

    Glad to hear you’ve allowed yourself some guilt-free leisure time! And, yes, definitely agree that singing can be a really huge mood booster (regardless of whether you’re in tune or not 😉 )

    February 9, 2016
    |Reply
    • camparigirl
      camparigirl

      I now know more about radiation than I ever thought possible. I started the post with a lot of detailed information on how and why it works but then I trimmed it because who, if not other patients (or you), could possibly care? In most cases, like mine, it’s done, not as a preventive measure nor to treat any cancer, but in the event that, while the surgeon was cutting out the tumor, some cells got loose around the breast. Who knew? But yes, it is totally doable and the side effects are manageable.

      February 9, 2016
      |Reply
  7. Keep up that magnificent attitude! Go for it girl!

    February 9, 2016
    |Reply
    • camparigirl
      camparigirl

      Thank you Nadia. The encouragement does help.

      February 9, 2016
      |Reply
    • camparigirl
      camparigirl

      One day at a time, I suppose. My treat for today involves a money exchange though: lunch at a hipster diner.

      February 9, 2016
      |Reply
  8. Keep up the positive attitude. I firmly believe it helps.

    February 9, 2016
    |Reply
    • camparigirl
      camparigirl

      Some days it is easier than others but, yes, I agree, it helps. Especially staying out of the “woe is me” mode.

      February 9, 2016
      |Reply
  9. Luciana Chapman
    Luciana Chapman

    Wish you the best for the duration!

    February 9, 2016
    |Reply
    • camparigirl
      camparigirl

      Grazie Luci!

      February 9, 2016
      |Reply
  10. Here’s hoping the rest of these treatments follow suit with the first ones. Thinking of you. ღ

    February 8, 2016
    |Reply
    • camparigirl
      camparigirl

      Thank you! In the meantime, the itching has set in…

      February 9, 2016
      |Reply

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