If chemo is a sledgehammer, then radiation is a little Dremer drill: more subtle, more precise but equally lethal in its way. The side effects accumulate more slowly, appearing quietly, steadily.
After my check-up with Dr. Fowble, I tell her that it feels like my breast is burning on the inside. “Is that possible?” I ask. “Is it just psychosomatic?”
“You said it, I didn’t,” Dr. Fowble replies with a smile. “We’re not going to burn you. The machine uses photons. It will cause a sunburn, but it’s not going to burn your breast.”
The fatigue begins. I get home from cycling to the hospital and crawl into bed for a nap. This is a guilty, and necessary, indulgence. Even with the nap, I’m punch-drunk tired by 8 in the evening.
The sunburn begins to show. It’s strange to have a sunburn that is a perfect rectangle. Well, it’s a perfect rectangle when I hold my arms over my head, in the “treatment position.” When I have my arms at my side, the rectangle distorts, the upper right corner forming an arrow shape that points to my right ear.
This is when the gastrointestinal upset begins. I add Nexium back into my medication routine.
The sunburn becomes slightly more uncomfortable. I find myself slathering the medical “skin conditioner” on the sunburn half a dozen times a day. The tissue underneath begins to ache.
Strangely, my shoulder with the rotator cuff tear begins to hurt again, sometimes intensely, usually when I’m leaning on bicycle handlebars. At my weekly checkup, I ask Dr. Fowble if I begin taking Gabapentin (Neurontin) again. This drug kept the shoulder under control during chemo. We discuss why radiation might be making the shoulder act up. Neither one of us is sure. I theorize that my shoulder just doesn’t like cancer treatment.
I’m now halfway through week five. Sunburn, fatigue, stomach upset and shoulder pain continue. To this, I now add itchiness. The “treatment area” has bloomed a deep pink and the pores have become blotchy red. I have the constant urge to scratch. This is not very ladylike.
At my weekly checkup, Dr. Naomi Schechter fills in for Dr. Fowble who’s off this week. She tells me that my skin looks great, that the blotches, itchiness and so on are completely normal reactions. She says it’s time to move on to the second phalanx of skin products, adding a cortisone cream and an anti-fungal cream to the skin conditioner.
“We all have yeast on our skin,” Dr. Schechter explains. “The dryness caused by the sunburn makes it easier for the yeast to take hold. That’s what causes the itching. The cortisone will tamp down the swelling and the itchiness. The anti-fungal will fight the yeast.”
As I walk out, Dr. Schechter opens a large closet filled with boxes of medically-appropriate skincare products, and hands me what I need.
Twenty-seven days down, three more days of photons. Then, I get five days of electrons aimed at where the tumor used to be. Almost finished. Hopefully.