Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Radiation Domination

Today marks day 2 of radiation therapy. 

All in all, a tough day. A dear and loved friend lost her dad early this morning. The side effects of his chemo became too much, but in the long run, how doesn't matter as much as the fact that he is gone. I'm thankful to have some hilarious and good, over the top memories of him - who else builds a pole vault pit in their backyard for fun, but my heart aches for her knowing what that kind of loss is like. It also, it almost goes without saying, cuts a little too close to the bone. 

Yesterday's first radiation visit, delayed from Monday due to a broken water pump, was literally painfully long. The lying still isn't bad. I actually don't mind that at all - it's a challenge I enjoy and can keep my mind on. I don't even have to hold my breath. It's not the molded headrest to keep my chin out of the works. It is as hard as a rock and if I hadn't been there for the taking of the (my) head impression, I'd wonder who sat in for me. It's hard, unforgiving, and has a ridge that digs into my scalp. But I've been told it's the right one - I asked. But wait, there's more. As I lie on the table with my head turned up and to the left, I have to keep my arms above my head. Therein lies the rub. The way my arms rest, particularly my right arm, it goes numb within seconds. The other one takes a few minutes. Today's shorter session was bearable with much counting and trying to focus on something else, anything but what was going on, but yesterday's session which included many x-rays and consultations and adjustments was excruciating both in duration and actual discomfort. I've been told that after today it won't take as long to set me up. I can only hope at this point. 

Adding insult to injury yesterday, I found out after my treatment that I am on a back up machine. Part of my plan in moving my treatment out of boston and waiting till now to begin was to ensure continuity - I would only be on one machine and only have one doctor. Toss that one out the window. Once the water pump situation is resolved, I'll be moved to the right machine. Finding out after the fact really irritated me. 

Not much positive to report here - a sore right neck, shoulder, and elbow, a tendency to numbness and aches after the contortions, and a general feeling of sadness as a result of the procedure. Lying on the table, naked from the waste up, feet strapped together, and arms stretched out over my head is a very exposed position physically and emotionally. Being blasted by a high dose x-ray has me asking is this really all they can do? Which leads down the rabbit hole of how bad is this if this process is part of the cure. And, finally, each session reminds me of this sickness. Even though these treatments are shorter than the all-day chemo infusions, which I would never want to go through again and would not wish on my worst enemy, at least I could distract myself. There is no distraction I've found when you're naked and exposed like this. Not yet, anyway. I find this part of the process quite depressing. Somehow, I have to reframe the focus, like I did with the chemo and its side effects, that this is going to make me better, that it is working, and it will all be worth it. It's like I tell my team on the tough practice days - you can choose to have a bad attitude or you can choose to have a good attitude. 

31 more sessions to go. I can do it. 

Monday, September 22, 2014

Pause drill

Quick update.

Radiation did not begin today as scheduled. I got a call this morning a couple of hours before I was supposed to show up. Coming, as it did, during a very densely packed HR new-employee orientation, I lost my perfect excuse to escape. As best I could understand, a water pump, possibly in the radiation machine (really?), was not working. I've been rescheduled for tomorrow at 5:00pm. In a fortunate turn of events, since that is normally smack in the middle of practice, tomorrow is an Ivy League Rest Day which enough on the team lobbied for. #sororityrush #earnedmytrustalready

Rapid fire update.

  • It's been over a week since I sliced open my boat on the submerged part of a tree on the Connecticut. Ugh. 
  • I shaved my legs for the first time in nearly 5 months. Slightly more pleasant than above.  #sharperblade
  • Max is nearly as excited when he sees a golf bag carrier as when he sees a deer. Or, a skunk. 
  • A week of DVW in the books!

Wednesday, September 10, 2014


I returned safely from the Amsterdam and the racing on Labor Day. Results were, for the most part strong, though many of the athletes were affected by unfair conditions on the course. Even for an outdoor sport, it was a tough go watching so many athletes in a position of having so much out of their control despite the countless hours of training and devotion to technique. It was heartbreaking to watch whether you've been there competing at that level or not.

After my day of rest, it was time to dive into a series of doctor's appointments which would close the loop post-surgery and pre-radiation as well as set me up for the transfer of treatment to Dartmouth-Hitchcock. Tuesday, first up, MGH and my radiation oncologist. We went over my pathology report which had been updated in the form of "final report." Pre-chemo, I was originally diagnosed as T2 N0 where T indicates the size of the tumor (between 2 and 5cm) and N indicates what is found in the nodes (0 means none, clear). Following the chemo and surgery, I am now T1 (the tumor shrank to under 2cm) and N1 (one positive node). As planned, this indicates radiation therapy in my future - once a day for 6.5 weeks, Monday-Friday, or 33 treatments. What we discussed was where to have the treatment which boiled down to my right breast where the tumor was removed, under my right arm to get to the remaining lymph nodes, and above my right collar bone where the lymph nodes under my arm drain through. Short term side effects include hair loss at the site of radiation (not like chemo where I lost all my hair), skin issues (discoloration, loss of suppleness, burning, peeling, rash), and fatigue (mainly toward the last few weeks and likely less intense than with the chemo). Long term side effects could be lymphedema (swelling of my arm due to damage sustained by the lymph system) and brachial nerve damage (resulting in loss of control and strength in my arm), as well as an increased risk of skin cancer at the treatment site and other tumors/cancer in general. Both of the major long term side affects which could wind up affecting my arm are less for me because of my age, good health, and fitness/exercise. The best long term side effect is that overall, the radiation lowers my chance of recurrence of breast cancer by 30-40% such that I will have a less than 5% chance of recurrence over 25 years. That works for me!

The next day, Wednesday, early in Hanover, I met my radiation oncologist at D-H. We also went over my pathology report and agreed on the same treatment plan. This precipitated a radiation planning meeting for the following Monday. Afterward, it was great to then have a whole day in Hanover to get going on the transition to a new job in a new town, but at the end of the day, another 126 mile drive back to MA.

Thursday, day 3 of doctors, I met with my surgical oncologist at MGH to close the loop on the follow up team meeting - I had met with my medical oncologist right before going to Amsterdam but at that time the rest of my team was on (deserved) vacation. From my my surgical follow up, it was confirmed that the incisions were healing well and that the scars and puckering would continue to fade and smooth out. None of that bothers me and since nothing is terribly sore anymore and is healing well, I am very happy.

Time at home Friday-Sunday allowed for some socializing, some packing, some work from home, and some rowing before heading back to NH for Monday's early morning radiation planning meeting at D-H. Monday involved going over the treatment plan again and essentially staging a simulation. My radiation oncologist marked the treatment area with a sharpie and some indicator beads that would show up during the CAT scan. The three sites within this zone are basically my entire right breast, under my right arm where the lymph nodes are located, and the supracavicular nodes (think just above the really bony ridge of your collar bone). This would enable the team of nurses and technicians working with my doctor to line me up properly and plan for the correct dosage of radiation. It turns out, my surgeon placed (microscopic) clips where the tumor was removed which makes if very easy to see where I need treatment - these clips show up on this kind of imaging but are way too small to feel. After positioning me just so, I was marked, literally tattooed with 4 tiny dots - two on my sternum one each above and below my breast about 4" apart, and two others on my sides one each under each arm about 1/3 of the way above the lower sternum mark. They really look like small, dark freckles. One more trip in the CAT scan allowed them to adjust my chin out of the way. I'll have to look hard left for the treatment. Each treatment itself isn't very long, maybe a minute or so. And, just like an X-ray, I will not be able to feel the radiation therapy even though this amount of radiation kills fast dividing cells which is not at all like the lower amount you get at the dentist's office or to look at a broken bone - that amount does not kill your cells.

I will begin treatment on September 22 and my last day should be November 5. I would be starting a week sooner, but decided to wait out for my doctor's return from the annual American Society for Radiation Oncology Conference Targeting Cancer (I think I have that right).

Finally, I became especially aware of the time frame of all of this when I got a call from my old mammogram provider reminding me of my 6 month check up. (I won't be going since my next one is scheduled at MGH 6 months from now. Sometimes, it is hard to believe this all began 6 months ago, that it is over 2 months since my last chemo, and that I am feeling as good as I am today. Beyond that, life is the general craziness that ensues at the beginning of every new school year as the returning students come back to campus and the new ones arrive for the first time. Throw a somewhat bossy/needy dog into the mix, two brand new coaches, a first practice in only a few days and you've hit the nail on the head on the level of the excitement going on around me.