Radiation Tips, Tricks, & Tools!

SO I’M DONE! And as such, I thought it might be helpful (maybe?) to post a few things I learned along the radiation brick road.

First of all, expect the worst. I don’t mean this in a pessimistic way – hear me out. Everybody told me, “Oh, it’s so easy! It’s a walk in the park compared to chemo!” Dude, that was NOT the case for me. With chemo, it was a week and a half bad, a week and a half good. The alternation made it easier for me to take – there was always a quickly approaching light at the end of the tunnel. With radiation, it was a six-week, cumulative slog, and it SUCKED. Now, radiation for YOU may very well be like it was for the people who told me it would be easy-peasy. But I’m just trying to prepare you better than they did me – it might not be. Still, it WILL end and you WILL survive it!

Now, onto my favorite part: shopping! Here are some items that helped me and I think might also help you! I think I might also make a video of these for those who pick things up better that way.

  1. Boiron First Aid Calendula Cream – Okay so this was my biggest, biggest error. The nurse told me to use calendula cream, so I went on Amazon and searched for calendula cream and went by the nicest, most expensive ones with the highest star ratings. I also watched a widely circulated video where the narrator repeatedly advises women undergoing radiation treatments NOT to use any alcohol or alcohol-based products on their treated skin, and the first ingredient in this cream is alcohol. IGNORE HER! IGNORE RATINGS! This is the cream your nurse was recommending – it is just called Calendula Cream and it’s good! It’s non-greasy and it works. I could have saved myself a lot of pain and suffering if I had just bought this stuff to start with. You will use this and/or Miaderm 3 or more times a day. I did this morning after shower, afternoon after treatment, and evening before bed.
  2. Miaderm Radiation Relief – After I started experiencing skin breakdown, I got desperate and began googling for the best possible radiation skin treatments, and this cream came up again and again, so I bought some. After I started using this in conjunction with the cream mentioned above and the compresses I will discuss later, I took my skin from open, raw, and bordering on moist desquamation to completely healed and just pink in a matter of a week IN THE MIDDLE OF TREATMENT. When I mentioned to my technician that I was using it she said at her previous job, which was at a very well-respected breast cancer radiation center, Miaderm is the ONLY thing they recommended to their clients. It’s expensive and there is a reason, trust me.
  3. Carrasyn Gel Wound Dressing – I will explain how to use this below, but be sure to ask first if your doc has some they can give you – I got mine for free.
  4. Aquaphor Healing Ointment – Exact same info as #3.
  5. Telfa Non-Adherent Bandages – This will go with #s 3 & 4, and it will kind of be up to you what size you’ll want (I’ll explain below).
  6. CarraDres Clear Hydrogel Sheets – This is an expensive product, and one you will probably only get value out of if your skin breaks down and you’re in bad pain (as I was), so I’d wait on purchasing this. You might also be able to get a few free ones out of your doc. However, it was invaluable to be when my skin did break down. You could also try a less expensive but comparable product, like the ones made by Medela.
  7. Avocado Oil – Great if your skin gets very dry (again, as mine did). Obviously it’s an oil, so be prepared for it to get on your clothes. (And remember, if it does, some Dawn dish liquid on oil stains prewash will take them right out.)
  8. Prescription saline wash – Obviously you can’t get this on Amazon, so ask your provider – they were able to give it to me free. You keep it in the fridge (it’s non-perishable, but that helps keep it cool and soothing) and put it on a washcloth, which you then use as a compress on raw or broken skin. Made a big difference for me – I did it at night before bed.

All right, so again – my biggest error was getting the wrong damned cream for my radiation rash. I highly recommend the two listed above – if you use them early and often, you may never even need this other stuff. BUT IF YOU DO…

The nurse told me fairly early on about using #s 3, 4, & 5 together, but I tried it during the day. The idea is you take a Telfa bandage (she gave me a few long ones, but I used both long and short and kinda preferred the shorter ones) and put a line each of the aloe wound dressing and Aquaphor healing ointment down the center. You then slap it over the problem area and smush it down and there it stays. Except it doesn’t. It slides around all over the place, so using it during the day was both messy (Aquaphor, as the word “ointment” suggests, is greasy) and inefficient. I then discovered using it as a night dressing and it changed my world. My skin healed so quickly and so well my techs and I literally could not believe it. Typically when your skin opens in the midst of radiation they really don’t expect it to get better until well after you’ve finished, but between these compresses and the Miaderm, I finished radiation with fully closed skin.

The CarraDres pads are a similar idea but less messy, so better for daytime use. However, they also do not adhere well and will not adhere at all to lotioned skin, so be prepared to tuck one into your bra and adjust it constantly.

Avocado oil was what my doc pushed for dry skin caused by radiation. I did apply it fairly often, especially when my skin was at its worst, but did not prefer it because it stains. It can be gotten fairly easily and cheaply, however, so that is a bonus!

I also lived on Advil during the time my skin was open, and even took a few leftover prescription painkillers when it got tough to sleep because of the pain.

That about does it! If you have any questions, or if you want to endorse a product that worked especially well for you, feel free to comment below!

Complaints or gratitude?

I have really been pretty depressed ever since the day I found out radiation on my armpit would continue. I “only” have 8 more sessions, but when you are in pain 24 hours a day, that seems a lot longer than you would think.

I have kind of tried to keep it to myself (how depressed I am) because I feel like facing this entire challenge with gratitude and an upbeat attitude has been one of my strengths and worked to my benefit. But the fact is I AM depressed, and just hiding it isn’t resolving the issue.

There are a number of reasons I am depressed, and my first instinct was to blog about them all, because writing is very soothing for me. But no one wants to listen to someone complain incessantly, so I decided to try to turn each complaint I have around into an expression of gratitude. I know it’s not going to fix my depression, but maybe it will improve my mood, even just for today.

So here goes.

I am grateful that I have a capable doctor with whom I can meet this week to discuss my burns and the pain they’re causing, and I’m grateful my insurance will cover it.

I’m grateful that I can afford a pilates instructor to help strengthen my muscles. I’m grateful I have an amazing friend who is also a massage therapist who helps me manage the pain in my joints. I am grateful my insurance covers an acupuncturist (who’s from Philly!)

I am grateful I have not lost ALL of my eyelashes. I am grateful my eyebrows and hair are growing back in.

I am SO grateful I have a partner who supports me, takes care of me, and has taken on extra duties to ensure I get the rest I need to heal.

I am grateful – I am having a hard time with this one. I am embarrassed, depressed, and angry that chemo sent me into early menopause, and that I don’t know when or if I will come out of it. It is embarrassing to be 38 and in menopause and I don’t – I can’t think of any positive side to it. I am grateful – I am grateful to be alive. I am grateful my body responded to chemo the way it was supposed to, and that I am still here.

I am grateful that I have been able to maintain a social life while undergoing treatment.

I am grateful that I have stayed positive up until now.

I am grateful for the amazing network of people I know in real life and online who have listened to, understood, and supported me throughout this ordeal.

And I am grateful I can write. So grateful for that.

Radiation Burns & Bad Days

So, on Wednesday I met with my radiation oncologist. She told me that this coming Wednesday, they will be reducing the radiation field so that it is focused just on the cavity where the lesion was removed. I asked, “So my armpit will get a break and begin to have a chance to heal?” She told me yes, and I nearly jumped up and did a dance. You see, this is what my armpit looks like.

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The very red area in the middle right is where my lymphadenectomy scar is. In the previous photo I posted, it was quite red. After that, it began to blister, and eventually opened. The dark skin all around is dead skin that has been fried by radiation. You can see where it, too, is beginning to peel. The skin underneath is new skin and very raw. Discontinuing radiation in this area was extremely important to me as the area hurts 24 hours a day, makes it very difficult to do normal, everyday tasks, and is also interfering with my sleep. More radiation there means frying that new skin, developing more blisters, and having the possibly of moist desquamation – that is, a blister that opens and instead of revealing dry new skin underneath, reveals moist, undeveloped skin, which can be a gateway for bacteria and infection.

So on Wednesday, when I got the news that I only had three more radiations to that area, I came home on a cloud. Sadly, yesterday the techs did the X-rays to determine what area the last seven treatments would cover, and the open, painful area falls just inside the border. So instead of only two more weeks of pain and skin deterioration in that area, I am facing another month of it.

As a result, I cried. I cried on the table and then I cried again in the changing room. I cried last night and then I cried again today. I think I am done crying now and can just face this and soldier on, but boy am I tired of pain and sleepless nights. Essentially the area hurts so much that when I roll over in my sleep, the pain wakes me. So I will talk to my doctor about that when I see her next week.

I really try to stay positive and upbeat and not let the little things get the best of me, but this has been the longest eight months of my life. Later I will post a photo of my naked chest so that the difference between the radiated side and the non-radiated side is visible, because it’s actually both interesting and shocking. Frankly if someone goes through all this and then the cancer comes back, that is just the ultimate insult. That should be against the laws of nature. Me getting cancer, eh, you could say it’s not fair, but I’d say that’s debatable. Someone doing all this and then having the cancer come back? THAT’S unfair.

Anyhow, in conclusion, to quote Bart Simpson, I didn’t think it was physically possible, but this both sucks and blows.

Memorial Cake

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Okay, so, yesterday I went to Safeway to get Julian a birthday cake because they have surprisingly delicious cakes. First of all, I was hoping for a chocolate cake with white icing but they were all white with white or chocolate with chocolate. So I politely asked the lady working in the bakery if they had any chocolate with white and she somewhat angrily told me NO, those have to be special ordered! Fair enough. The limited selection they did have were split between birthday (which were all white with white) and Memorial Day (with the flags, which is the one I ended up getting for Julian). And this is where I get to my point.

I realize that in this country Memorial Day is all about a long weekend and the start of summer and barbecuing (and for some of us, the beginning of the season where it’s no longer considered gauche to wear white slacks or shoes), but can we take a second to think about how weird and disrespectful that is? I’m not preaching here, I just find it pretty strange that the way we honor and remember fallen soldiers is by eating a cake with a flag on it.

Thank you for dying for this country. Now excuse me while I enjoy some flag cake.

Into Each Life

The Rainy Day

The day is cold, and dark, and dreary;
It rains, and the wind is never weary;
The vine still clings to the mouldering wall,
But at every gust the dead leaves fall,
And the day is dark and dreary.

My life is cold, and dark, and dreary;
It rains, and the wind is never weary;
My thoughts still cling to the mouldering Past,
But the hopes of youth fall thick in the blast,
And the days are dark and dreary.

Be still, sad heart! and cease repining;
Behind the clouds is the sun still shining;
Thy fate is the common fate of all,
Into each life some rain must fall,
Some days must be dark and dreary.

-Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

I am not glad I have cancer, but nor will I spend my days whining and complaining about my lot. My life is extraordinary, and I am as grateful now as I was before. Without bad, good cannot exist.

Eleven more radiation treatments. Onward!

AGHHH

60-second frustration vent.

My house is a mess because I was incapacitated half the time during chemo and the other half the time was trying to be a good Mom. (And to be honest, it wasn’t exactly especially tidy even before that, but at least I could get all the basics done.) Finally done chemo and have the time and energy to clean, but moving my right arm results in discomfort/pain/friction.* If I go without a bra, my shirt rubs on my right nipple and causes discomfort/pain. If I wear a bra – even a nice, comfortable sleep bra – it chafes at the radiation burns under my armpits and causes friction/pain. Meanwhile my port incision continues to weep.

AGGGHHHHH I AM SO DONE WITH CANCER AND TREATMENT. I WANT MY BODY AND MY LIFE BACK NOW.

*I am supposed to avoid friction at all costs because that is what causes skin breakdown and blisters, and once the blisters open I am subject to infection. And I am not sure the skin would close again until after radiation which is not for ANOTHER THREE WEEKS.

A pause for thought

Yesterday, Dr. Morris told me that my skin looks great for this point in my treatment. That really put a smile on my face and made me feel better. Plus, I’m over halfway done now!

One absurd thing is the port incision on my chest keeps opening a tiny bit and weeping and I finally realized it’s happening when I am not wearing a bra because the weight of my left breast is pulling the incision open. Problem? Radiation oncology told me to avoid wearing a bra as often as possible to minimize friction and maximize airflow. So basically I need a half a bra. I can’t just cut a cup out either because I need to not have anything in my armpit either. Crazy.

Also, came across this video in my newsfeed this morning. Take a minute to watch it all the way through – it’s brief but carries an important message, and one I will try to apply to my life.

Tony Robbins – What Makes Charismatic People Attractive?

Happy Wednesday!

Radiation 18/35

Not such a good day.

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The radiation is really starting to take its toll on my skin. My right nipple is significantly darker than my left, and my entire breast feels heavy. I am developing a red, spotty rash from above my nipple to into my armpit. Meanwhile, I have vitiligo in my armpit, so the radiation has made it very red and tender, like a sunburn. Unlike a sunburn, the redness and soreness do not go away. In fact, I learned from my tech today that my skin woes are really only just starting – they will get worse, and continue to worsen even after I am through with radiation (June 9). So essentially I am looking at my skin darkening, burning, and possibly (likely) blistering and opening before this is all over, which really won’t be until the end of June.

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I am tired. Not fatigue-tired, thankfully – that hasn’t hit me yet, though I am sure it will. I am mentally tired. I am tired of fighting this enemy that I can’t see or feel. I am tired of waging war on my own body to combat something that may or may not even be there. It has been 7 long months since my first surgery, and I have mostly stayed positive, but today, as I lay on the table, holding those fucking pegs, I thought to myself, “What if I just died? If something killed me, then I wouldn’t have to do this anymore.” I don’t mean suicidal, though I have been there – I mean just, I don’t want to do this anymore. I don’t want to face one more day of self-harm for a result I may or may not see. And my friend, her mother went through all this shit – surgery, chemo, radiation – and guess what? She just had a tumor removed from her spine. Metastasis. So is this worth it? I really don’t know.

I want to quit. Just say, fuck this, I have done enough, been through enough. There is only so much the human mind, spirit, and body can handle, and I am at my limit. When you start to think death is a preferable alternative, I think it’s safe to say you’ve used up your reserves and are pretty much at the end of your rope.

But then I talk to my breast surgeon, who tells me he doesn’t ever think I am going to deal with this cancer again. And I talk to my Mom, who offers words of sympathy and encouragement. And I talk to my husband, who makes me dinner and takes the kids up for their bath so I can write it out. And I talk to the ladies in my Facebook cancer group – some of whom have been through this and come out the other side, some of whom are facing it head on right now, just like me – and they offer words of camaraderie and praise. And I realize: this will be all right. I will be all right.

So yeah. Things suck today. But I’ll go back tomorrow, and every damned day until I’m done, and I’ll suffer and have bad days but in the end it will be behind me and if the cancer does come back, at least I know I can say I did everything I could.

Radiation 12/35

I was cruising along so well that I got comfortable and thought maybe I could do this without any majorly ill effects. I was wrong. And I’m not even halfway done – the treatment cycle or the week.

My right breast is swollen and tender. My right nipple has gotten darker and is sore like a bruise – like a terrible sunburn, the kind that turns your skin nearly purple. Maybe I could deal better if I didn’t have – and LOVE – my children climbing all over me all the time, kneeing me in the chest as often as resting their heads on it. The scar in my armpit from my lymph node removal gets pinker and pinker, and the skin looks thin – not what I would expect from scar tissue. I am slightly afraid it will split, as I have read radiation skin can and often does.

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I will ask my doctor about it when I see her Friday.

Funny, the side effects from this treatment really are minimal compared to chemo, but somehow it seems worse in some ways. I think the side effects of chemo were immediate and tangible, but the side effects of radiation are cumulative, so there is more anxiety involved.

And speaking of chemo – six weeks out from the last one today, and the joint pain unfortunately continues. Advil helps, but I try to use it sparingly as I don’t need a destroyed liver on top of the joint pain! Have had acupuncture twice and have noticed no effect (other than the hour lost sitting bored with needles in me). I’ll keep trying.

So, blah. Not a great day for me today, BUT – we did get Gregory’s ear tubes yet and he has had an immediate and overwhelming improvement in his hearing that has made us all giddy. So I’m trying to focus on all the beauty and good outside of my own body for the time being.

Eyebrow Pencils for Blondes!

Some brow pencil tips for those with blonde chemo brows!

Lipgloss & Life

If you’ve not kept up on this or my other blog, or are just stumbling across this entry, I am recovering from cancer – or, more accurately, recovering from chemotherapy. I haven’t lost my eyebrows completely, but they are definitely gappy and bare in spots. Balding, I guess you could say. Since this begun happening, I have tried many, many different eyebrow pencils.

I have naturally very ashy, dirty blonde hair. Dishwater blonde is the PERFECT term for it because it really is a grayish-light brown like dirty dishwater. I have highlighted it (and occasionally colored it a totally different color) since I was 16 because really, it’s just mousy. People have repeatedly told me my hair might come in a different color and my attitude has basically been, BRING IT, because I can’t think of a more unattractive hair color than my natural color pre-cancer.

With that said, my…

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