Radiation, Medication and Pixie Hair.
Ideally, I would have posted this earlier, but I have mentally needed to take a little break from posting. Thanks to everyone for asking me for an update and checking in on me! Since the last post, I have returned to work 50%, which has been going well, and I am learning how to balance my time better and hold myself accountable to the reduced hours and not work beyond that (a pretty hard challenge for me).
I am almost halfway through radiation. The side effects of fatigue and redness (like a sunburn) are starting to increase, but the most significant side effect has been more of a mental one. It is tough balancing being a mom, working 50%, and commuting to treatments at UCSD in La Jolla Monday through Friday (yes. Every. Single. Day. Except. Weekends). The treatment times have varied wildly from 6:10 am until 7:00 pm; however, they have finally settled into a consistent time slot starting this week, which I am thankful for. Radiation is easier than chemotherapy from a physical standpoint. I don't feel physically sick or have the pain that I experienced during that treatment. However, as with chemo, it has been like a roller coaster. During chemo, I would feel horrible for a few days and then gradually feel better and better over the next two weeks until the next round of chemo hit. It was an intense roller-coaster filled with lots of ups and downs. With radiation, it feels like I'm on a ride that never ends. The constant, daily reminder of cancer that radiation brings me feels all-encompassing, and all I want to do is be able to escape and wake up from this insane, unimaginable nightmare of a year.
Many people have asked me if receiving radiation hurts. It doesn't. The entire process takes no more than 30 minutes. Most of that time is spent getting me into precisely the position with lots and lots of adjusting until everything lines up just so (using my four mini tattoos as guide points). As my radiation oncologist said, "We are dealing in millimeters here. Everything has to be lined up just perfectly, and if you move even a little, we have to start all over." I want no part of that.
(Not me in this photo)
I lie face up on a table naked from the waist up. My arms are stretched above my head, and my head is turned to the left. Once I am in the position, the techs leave, and the machine rotates around me, stopping four times to deliver the radiation, which in total lasts about 2-3 minutes of the entire time I am there. They radiate four areas: the right breast, lymph nodes in the right armpit, half of the left breast, and the nodes on the right side of my chest. If my cancer were to have traveled, then the left breast and those chest lymph nodes are the next places it would go. The blue in this fancy diagram is essentially the area that is radiated.
I can drive myself to and from treatments, and overall am just feeling increased fatigue and some dizziness. Like that of a mild sunburn across my chest and breasts, the slight redness that is currently there will increase in intensity over the next couple of weeks and, if all goes according to typical side effects, I will end up with what amounts to a really intense sunburn and a rash. It doesn't sound fantastic but certainly doable. I need to apply a prescription cream twice daily to help manage these side effects. My last day of radiation will be on June 30th, and the last day of the school year is June 25th, so let's say that I am really, really looking forward to July!
Before beginning radiation, my oncologist started me on Armidex, the hormone-blocking medication that I will need to take daily for the next 5+ years to reduce cancer recurrence (more details on this in the previous post). This medication adjustment ended up being incredibly challenging for me and is what has primarily led to my lapse in posting a blog update. After starting the medication, I became very depressed and emotional. I wasn't suicidal; however, I was despondent, crying often, and was apathetic (which is *very* unlike me). I dismissed it as "mood swings" and let it go on far too long before reaching out to my oncologist, knowing that where I was mentally was neither sustainable nor healthy. I was glad that I did because he confirmed that what I was experiencing were not "normal" side effects and prescribed another medication to take in addition to the hormone blocker. This medication helped to regulate me, and I felt more like myself within a couple of weeks. This isn't something I have shared openly for some reason; however, it's part of my story, and that story wouldn't be complete without including it.
My hair is indeed growing back. I have eyelashes and eyebrows again, and the hair on my head is slowly increasing as well. It's not long enough yet to tell if it is going to end up curly or thicker, but it does feel like a different texture, I think, so time will tell. One strange thing is that I have had a middle part in my hair for as long as I can remember. So much so that it had created a discolored stripe of skin on my scalp that was visible once I was bald. Now that it is growing back, I have a side part, and the hair refuses to part any other way. How bizarre is that?! I am still getting used to having short hair and can't say that I love it. Truthfully, I feel self-conscious and relatively unattractive. However, I am trying to lean in and get used to it. As a dear friend told me, I get to live out every woman's fantasy of wondering what they would look like with a pixie cut, but the majority of people are not brave enough to actually go through with it. Now at least I know what I look like with a pixie! Even though I am not a fan overall, I will say that I love how fast it is to wash my hair in the shower and be ready to go out the door. Silver linings?
Finally, after all of the emotional ups and downs, I needed a little cheering up and an overall cancer escape. So, being the unicorn of a partner he is, Rick surprised me with a day trip to The Happiest Place on Earth--Disneyland (oncologist approved, of course)! We took it very easy and enjoyed our kiddo-free Disney day. The park was only at 20% capacity, which made for overall short waits for rides, and with social distancing, no one not in your family/group was allowed next to or in the row in front or behind you. Amazing! We felt safe the entire time and had a blast.
Love to you all. Thanks for being along with me for the roller coaster ride of this cancer experience.