Wednesday, February 01, 2006

What Radiation Is Like

Today starts week # 3 of radiation therapy. I posted my side effects update yesterday, but there has been a new development since my last post. Imagine the following background music as you read my latest development:

Give me a head with hair,
long beautiful hair.
Shining, gleaming, streaming, flaxen, waxen.
Give me down to there hair,
shoulder length or longer
Here baby, there, momma, ev'rywhere, daddy, daddy
Hair, hair, hair, hair, hair
Hair, hair, hair
Flow it, show it, long as God can grow it,
My hair!!!!!!
Yeah, I pulled out a clump from the side of my head last night, after my last post. Fortunately, it's in a very hideable spot. I just can't do high ponytails or up-do's, and I have to lose my nervous habit of tucking hair behind my ears, or else I will be showing off what looks like a bad case of mange just over my right ear. It's the beginning of hair loss, expected to happen in the areas where the radiation beams hit my head.
Speaking of radiation, here's what that process is like:
1. Before starting radiation, they did an x-ray simulation and made a mask of my head. It was a cool experience, because the mask was made of a malleable, warm plastic material that was draped all over my face and head. It felt like a spa treatment while they were making it! Then they put on a helmet (and I swear, at that point I thought of the scene in Star Wars Ep.3, where they make Darth Vader) and took precise measurements of my head in the helmet.
2. After the mask was fully cured, I had a C-T scan (wearing the mask) and an MRI (without the mask). All of this information was compiled into a really neat software program to create a 3-D image of my head and brain. Then a bunch of super specialists (including the radiation oncologist and my neurosurgeon) carefully designed the radiation protocol to shape the beams precisely where they need to go, and to ensure that the target area gets a full dose. They targeted the "tumor bed" plus a margin around that. Once this was all set up, I was ready to start.
3. Every weekday for six weeks, I go there for my radiation treatments. ("There" is the Richardson Regional Cancer Center.) Someone drives me (usually my dad), and it takes about 20 minutes to get there from my house. It's a convenient location. I walk in the door, and unless I am really early, they are always ready for me the minute I arrive. Everything works like clockwork there, which is really nice. Dad stays in the waiting room and works on his laptop while they take me back to the treatment room.
4. I don't have to gown up or anything. I just wear comfortable clothes and no jewelry. In the treatment room I lie down on a table, and my head is cradled in the back portion of my mask, which is fixed at the head of the table. The front part of my mask is snapped on, holding my head very still. It covers my whole face, but I can see out of it, so it's not claustrophobic or anything. The Darth Vader helmet comes back on, and more measurements are taken. A clear plastic box goes over my head. Laser alignments are checked. Everything is so precise, to make sure that my head is exactly where it needs to be. Stephanie and Lisa (the amazing women who do all these things for me) then turn on my CD of choice and head to their station outside the treatment room, where they can see and hear me on monitors while they deliver the radiation dose.
5. I lie there and relax and listen to music and think about a lot of stuff. The radiation is delivered by a powerful but elegant Novalis machine that rotates around me. Sometimes my table moves, too, as there are several positions needed for each desired entry point. It's all very gentle - not scary at all. The radiation delivery is usually pretty quiet, and sometimes reminds me of the little whirr sound you hear at the dentist's office when you get your teeth x-rayed. But there are lots of those sounds. Sometimes it sounds like a quiet camera going off. I usually close my eyes during the process, and I often "see" flashes of light. Sometimes it's like a camera bulb going off, and sometimes it looks like a little bolt of lightning. Sometimes I open my eyes, and depending on what position we are in, I can sometimes see the round aperture of the machine right in front of me, and I have a silly thought about it being some kind of alien (like in War of the Worlds or Independence Day). The whole thing is very comfortable and gentle and not at all scary or intimidating. And it seems to go so fast. The actual radiation delivery only takes about 15 minutes or so. Enough for a power nap, unless I am deep into visual imaging while it goes on.
6. After we're done, the mask is removed, I hop down from the table, chat briefly with the awesome women, and head out the door. UNLESS it is Monday. On Monday, they put me in an exam room where I get my blood drawn (to check blood cell counts, since I'm on chemo) and I meet briefly with the radiation oncologist and his nurse as they check up on my side effects, answer any of my questions, and talk about anything else that we need to cover. Again, it goes like clockwork, so I never have to sit around and wait. It's awesome.
The whole environment at the cancer center is very positive and inspiring. Not that anyone wants to be in a situation where they need a cancer center, but since I happen to be in that situation, I am very grateful for convenient access to care that combines technological advancement, professional skill, and highly compassionate, personalized service.
One thing I learned about radiation treatment is that unlike the typical conventional wisdom of loading up on anti-oxidants to fight cancer, I was advised not to load up on anti-oxidants during radiation treatment. They can defeat the radiation's effectiveness. I was advised that I can still follow a normal, sensible diet. I can (and should) still take a good multi-vitamin each day. I just shouldn't LOAD UP on anti-oxidants, like do all the super-juicing and other stuff like that. At least not until a few weeks after radiation is over.
I am also encouraged to otherwise enjoy a normal lifestyle wherever possible. I do get a little more tired, and that will probably increase as the treatments accumulate. But it's mostly due to sleep deprivation from insomnia. I take a steroid every day to minimize brain swelling and head pain, and it leaves me wired until late into the night, and up again early in the morning. But otherwise the process has been amazingly tolerable.
More blessings on the long list.

1 comment:

Krista said...

Krista, I don't know if you read these comments, but in case you do, I want to thank you for taking the time to document all this. I worked at Hospice for several years and have friends that are going through treatment of cancer. Your articulate description really helps us to know what they go through and hopefully those that are facing cancer, what to expect. I wrote some things to you on the2ofus4now contact button, too.