The side effects come in on little cat feet

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.

Week 1:
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.”

Week 2:
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.

Week 3:
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.

Week 4:
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.

Week 5:
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.


About leftbreast

I have had breast cancer. I was diagnosed at 47, and am now 49. I have finished "active treatment," two surgeries, chemo, radiation, monoclonal antibodies. These days, I only take a drug to suppress my uptake of estrogen, since my tumor was highly reactive to that hormone. I have been married to my husband Pete for 21 years. I have a stepdaughter, Maureen, 30, and a daughter, Erin, 10. I've been a freelance magazine journalist for 20-plus years, covering everything from Chinese foreign policy to Catholic nuns to endangered species. I have had a great life. I have lived in Asia and all over the United States. I have spent nights with tree-sitters in Oregon and with astronomers at the Mauna Kea observatory in Hawaii. I've been to a cocktail party on the poopdeck of a British destroyer docked in Shanghai. I've taken the bus to Tibet, and tramped through the cloud forests of Panama with biologists. A magazine sent me on a raft trip down the Colorado through the Grand Canyon; another sent me to cooking school for a week. I have spent time with celebrities, presidents and heroin dealers. I love my work. I have a loving, supportive family and more friends than I probably deserve. I have had the space and time to camp, ski, cycle, garden, cook and spoil my pets (an Australian shepherd, a German shepherd and a tabby cat). If it all ended tomorrow, I would have to say that it has been a really, really good ride. When I was in thick of treatment, I was simply fighting for more time. Now, I'm trying to connect the experience of cancer with the rest of my life, with the time that's been won. I hope the cancer never comes back, but if it does, I'll be ready. That's what this blog is about.
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6 Responses to The side effects come in on little cat feet

  1. Alison Quoyeser says:

    Hang in there, Heather! All strength to you!

  2. Denise Leigh says:

    Hi, Heather, I’ve thought about you often and your struggles w/your cancer treatment–ever since you first mentioned it to me when your family just moved to the Bay Area. Thank you for sharing this courageous tale. I wish you the most healthiest and energetic positive outcomes to your treatment and that your family remain tight and that you’re able to do the writing that clearly is your passion. All the best, Denise Leigh

    • leftbreast says:

      Denise, Thanks so much. This has been a tough year, but also one of many blessings. One of those is having Erin at Marin Montessori School, another is hiking on Ring Mountain, and just being home, and writing this blog. Thanks for taking the time to read it.

  3. Allison Green says:

    I have been reading your blog for months now. I am 46 diagnosed in November and started treatment in Janualry on my left breast. Just started Radiation today. Your posts have been very informative..since you are about 5 weeks ahead of me. I’m so ready for this to be over and to get my life & hair back again. thanks for blogging..and good luck to you.

  4. Catherine says:


    I’m sorry the radiation is so tough–yikes. It’s the one thing I didn’t have to do, and I am thankful I didn’t. I am so glad you are almost finished and you can close the book on the tx aspect (except for the Herceptin) and begin looking forward to a cancer- and tx-free life. (It does exist, I promise!)

    We’ll miss y’all at the cemetery on Monday, lol!
    Hugs, Cat

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