Phase 3 was radiation therapy or radiotherapy, often abbreviated RT, RTx, or XRT.
In preparation for this phase, I had to get a picture taken so that all technologists would recognize me in the waiting area.
I also had to get some tattoos. These permanent marks help the technologist accurately aim the radiation at the treatment area. Every treatment should be aimed at the same place in order to prevent recurrence and spare healthy tissue.
It is every day Monday through Friday for 6 weeks. The procedure itself is painless. Each treatment lasts only a few minutes, but the setup time usually takes longer.
At MGH, the drill is the same every time – swipe a card at the entrance (so that technologists know you have arrived), change into a hospital gown, sit at waiting area, wait for a technologist to get you for treatment.
I also saw a radiation oncologist once a week. The doctor checked the radiated area to make sure everything looked normal and that I was responding well to the treatment.
Nobody warned me about the big change. The chemo ward is a large room with huge windows and a view of the city. I had my own comfy chair and I could close a curtain if I wanted privacy.
On the contrary, radiation therapy takes place in a dark basement. The waiting area is crowded and, as a patient, I did not feel that special.
The perks: Complimentary valet parking and snacks in the waiting area.
I felt that I had gone from a five-star resort to a youth hostel. I used to joke with fellow patients about missing the “spa” (we referred to the chemo ward as the “spa”).
All these negative things about the radiation ward had nothing to do with the staff. The technologists are five-star quality. I became very good friends with one of them and we still keep in touch even though he no longer works at MGH.
Lotions, powders, deodorants, and antiperspirants can interfere with radiation therapy.
I had to switch to an aluminum free deodorant while in treatment. There are several brands. I used the Crystal Body Deodorant Stick (costs about $6.00). It lasts a long time.
I, later on, switched to Origins Totally Pure Deodorant (costs about $20).
I kept this habit up for a couple of years after treatment, but then I switched back to antiperspirant.
I also had to use a perfume free lotion on the radiated area twice a day. There are also many brands out there – Eucerin, Aquafor, Calendula, Miaderm. I used a cream called Physiogel made by Stiefel Labs. This cream costs about $50 on Amazon.
The main short-term side effects of radiation therapy to the breast are swelling of the breast, skin changes in the treated area and fatigue. Skin changes can range from mild redness to blistering and peeling.
I did not experience fatigue or swelling, but my skin did get really dark by the end of treatment. I did not peel or got blisters.
During the last week of radiation, I got what doctors call a “boost”. The technologist will aim the beam just in the area where the tumor was.
My skin got back to normal after a few months. I avoided the sun the year after radiation therapy since my skin was very sensitive. I also wore loose clothing and underwear to feel less discomfort.
I graduated from treatment with flying colors.
I had mixed feelings about being done. One part of me felt relieved and accomplished, but the other felt responsible for figuring out a plan for my life, my career, my family – not always the easiest task. I was never going to look at life the same way as before my diagnosis.
Phase 4 was Tamoxifen for five years. How bad could that be? No more visits to the chemo or radiation ward – just yearly check-ups and screening. Easy.