Radiation – Karen’s last cancer treatment

When I was first diagnosed with breast cancer, my husband saw an article on proton radiation therapy, which is supposed to be gentler than photon radiation. Currently, there are around 25 proton radiation centers in the USA and fortunately, one is in New Jersey where I live.

We didn’t think more about the subject until my breast surgeon and oncologist insisted that I have radiation therapy after the mastectomy. Luckily, the surgery was done at Memorial Sloan Kettering and the oncologist there (Dr. Oron Cahlon) was one of the directors at ProCure, the very proton therapy center we read about.

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My first of 30 days of radiation therapy began on March 8, 2017.

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Upon entering the facility, I clipped on a name tag that had a bar code on the back. Once registered, ProCure’s staff knew I was in the facility and called me when my appointment was ready. Once called, I stripped to my waist and slipped into a cotton gown.

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Prior to my first day, a mold of my torso was made from foam that turned hard within 15 minutes of being activated. When placed on a table in the proton therapy room, was covered with a white sheet.

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The picture below shows the position I took when laying in the mold.

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Below is a picture of the therapy room. On the far left, you see the mold’s shape under a white sheet. The blue wedge (middle of the picture) was slipped under my knees after I mounted the table.

Behind the blue wedge is the proton machine’s “snout,” which is what focuses and delivers the proton “beam.”

To the right of the picture are brass disks that feature a cut-out designed by the radiologist in charge, which in my case was Dr. Cahlon. When attached to the snout, the hole guides the proton beam to exactly where it is needed on the patient’s body.

My radiation involved at least two disks that targeted my left chest wall, my left arm pit where lymph nodes were removed during the mastectomy, lymph nodes under my left collar bone, and surgical incisions.

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Once the procedure began, I was left alone with the snout while the radiation staff disappeared into a control center. All but 26 procedures required that I be under the beam for four times during an hour session, with the last three sessions only two times. My husband, meanwhile, spent 30 days in the waiting room reading USA Today (when available) and cruising the web.

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I started therapy on March 8. By April 1st, I was confident that I’d breeze through these therapy sessions, even though I was told I would receive a skin burn mimicking what I might receive on a hot, sunny beach at high noon. At this time, my skin was just beginning to turn red and I felt there was nothing to worry about.

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Ten days later, on April 10th, however, my skin turned a leathery deep red.

(Note that the picture below is a mirror reflection. The treatment is on my left side.)

Skin toward the end of radiation treatment

Shortly after I took the above selfie, my skin began to split and peel, much to my alarm. Within the last 7 days of my therapy, I stayed in constant contact with my doctor and the radiation nurse questioning whether my experience was normal. Quitting the therapy was constantly on my mind.

Everyone, including the therapy room staff, told me that I was the poster child for “normal outcomes.” OMG! Frankly, the treatment itself did not hurt, nor did I get any side effects that kept me from living a “normal” life. It was only the gigantic burn, splitting skin, and pain from splitting skin that concerned me.

I did, however, have pain-controlling creams and took ibuprofen as needed, so did not become crippled, but I was, quite frankly, fearful for my life. Being systematically roasted by a proton beam produced results far different than getting a sunburn at high noon. Not only was my skin burned, so was all tissue beneath it.

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As it turned out, my skin re-grew.  In the picture above, which looks grizzly, the bright red skin is new and the brown is falling off. Although my torso looked awful, I was ready for “therapy graduation” on April 19th, which marked my 30th day under the snout.

For the graduation, I wore my Aztec goddess T-shirt adorned with female warrior Aztecas. Her strength and healthy left breast inspired me!

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Graduation – Cancer Therapy Is Over

ProCure hosts regular therapy graduation events in which a guest speaker (who’s been there and done that) leads the ceremony, graduates give a short talk, and everyone dines on excellent sandwiches.

In summary, here’s my short talk:

When I was told I had breast cancer, I had to choose between life that included a lot of scary therapy and death. I chose life. During the past 12 months, I have had my cecum (area of the bowel) removed, experienced four chemo treatments, was hospitalized for salmonella poisoning, had my left breast removed, and had been roasted for 30 days under the snout.

When I left the facility, I then rang a brass bell three times to announce that I was cancer free.

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At the graduation ceremony, I received a magical “Hope Blossoms When It Is Shared Coin,” symbol of all the good work done. The number 2563 indicates that I was the 2563rd patient at ProCure who made it through radiation and kept on smiling. Hopefully, this article will help others.

. . . oh, and about my hairdo. I love it and plan on keeping it short forever after, but I do hope my eyelashes grow out.

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Transitions

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Thanks to . . .

My oncologist is Dr. Karleung (Sammy) Siu, who practices at Holy Name Regional Cancer Center in Teaneck, NJ, and Dr. Farshad Mansouri, Colon and Rectal Surgery Specialist.

My breast surgeon and radiologist both practice at Memorial Sloan Kettering in New York City. They are Dr. Andrea Veronica Barrio and Dr. Oren Cahlon.

I appreciate all of medical professionals that I met at the Hackensack Radiology Group, the Hackensack University Medical Center and Dr. Marson Davidson, who spotted my potential colon cancer, the Holy Name Regional Cancer Center, and ProCure, the proton radiation center, all in New Jersey. I also greatly appreciate everyone at New York’s Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital.

Also a big thanks to Dr. Ronald Weiss, founder of Ethos Health, who recommended the book I follow, “How Not to Die,” and Dr. Luke Eyerman, a family practice physician who made all the above medical connections for me.

Author

This diary is written by Karen Little and recounts her experience with cancer treatment. All photography on this page is by Karen and Philip Little. Published as a series starting in October 2016. All rights reserved by Karen Little and Littleviews. Questions? Please contact Karen at Karen@Littleviews.com.