I tell my story based upon radiotherapy treatment I received for breast cancer over 20 years ago.
I went for an initial visit to the radiotherapy clinic to be tattooed. Travelling to the appointment I was very nervous because I was worried it would be painful. I was also in shock because I had no idea that I would need to be tattooed for radiotherapy treatment. So my mother and father came with me for support.
I have read that tattoos are still part of todays treatment.
Entering the radiotherapy room I was asked to undress waist upwards and lie down. Feeling very embarrassed and uncomfortable exposing my remaining right breast I did as I was told. Making this harder was the fact that the room seemed to be filled with men.
I did become desensitised to exposing myself as the sessions progressed.
To my relief I found that the tattoos were small dots around the area where my body would receive radiotherapy. I still see these tattoo dots today. Some of the dots made me flinch because they were tattooed onto bony areas. I was still sensitive from the mastectomy too.
A couple of days after the tattooing session I received a call from the radiotherapy clinic. I was asked to return to be measured again because the tattoos had not been put in exactly the right place. I fretted about having to return for more tattoos but when I arrived I found I didn’t need any more. All the radiographers did was measure the distance from the existing tattoos to the new correct area for treatment. What a relief!
I received 20 sessions of radiotherapy which were administered over four weeks Monday-Friday.
Travelling to and from the hospital was an hour each way therefore I was given a choice. I could stay at the facility Monday – Friday and come home at weekends or travel every day. I knew from what the doctors told me that driving myself every day whilst having radiotherapy treatment would be too tiring for me.
Therefore my father drove me to and from every one of those sessions. I felt he was my rock especially because it was not long after his own heart attack. Coming home every night really helped. My father’s help was a godsend..
At the radiotherapy sessions I met another young patient helping us both to know that we were not the only young one there. She was 29 years old and told me that she had to stay at the facility. As a result she didn’t get much sleep because she was sharing with a lady who snored loudly. Again I realised how lucky was to be able to go home every night.
I was given a special sleep bra during radiotherapy treatment because my skin wasn’t ready to cope with the weight and pressure of a full prosthesis. Filling the separate pocket of the sleep bra with a type of cotton wool gave it a rough “boob” shape. I decided to attach the “boob” pocket to the sleep bra with two safety pins because it stopped it moving about. Wearing loose fitting tops I tried to hide its poor shape.”
Possible Side Effects
Radiotherapy side effects vary between individuals and depending upon where on the body the treatment takes place.
Being zapped on my chest meant that there was an increased risk of my arteries hardening.
I patted my chest area with Johnson’s baby powder using cotton wool every night because it was sore from treatment. My red and itchy skin felt like it was sunburnt.
Washing with bath puffs and mild perfume free soap I minimised the pressure on the tender area where my breast had been. I wash with bath puffs even now because touching the area too hard still makes me flinch.
Sleeping and resting was very important because being very tired was one of the biggest side effects for me. I had to ask for help with light tasks too.
I still experience hair loss under my left arm pit. Looking on the bright side though I only have to shave my left armpit half as much as the right and it sweats less too.
I wondered if I would survive which is stressful. However I remember only a couple of “why me” moments;
- I curled into a ball at the bottom of my bed repeating “why me” over and over again.
- Travelling in the back of my parent’s car once I cried not even knowing why.
Sex and fertility issues
My sex drive completely disappeared during this time.
Stiff joints and muscles
Joints can become stiff, swollen and uncomfortable during radiotherapy. Doing my physiotherapy exercises certainly helped me to avoid this and helped to retain movement of my left arm.
Radiotherapy can damage the body’s lymphatic system which stops fluid building up in the body. The lymphatic system is a network of channels and glands that form part of the immune system (the body’s defence against illness). Lymphedema is the build up of fluid which can cause painful swelling.
Luckily I never developed lymphedema although I was at high risk because my lymph nodes had been removed. If I had my left arm would have been painful, large and swollen.
I have used factor 15 sun lotion ever since the radiotherapy treatment because I was told anything less would be no good. The skin is more sensitive after treatment.
I have recently wondered if I have brachial plexopathy caused by the radiotherapy. This is damage to the brachial plexus which is an area on each side of the neck where nerve roots from the spinal chord split into each arm’s nerves.
Ever since the cancer treatment I have struggled to lift with my left arm and assumed this was due to muscle wastage from the mastectomy. However it has been found that radiotherapy treatment for breast cancer may lead to permanent damage to the nerves of the neck, shoulder, or arm.
As an example I recently reached my left arm backwards to pick up my handbag and couldn’t lift it at all.
If you found this post interesting you may like to take a look at my other breast cancer story posts;
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