Radiation treatment for breast cancer is pretty simple. A typical treatment regimen lasts for 6 to 6-1/2 weeks, with a standard dose of radiation for most of the duration, then a period of a few days with a “boost” or additional radiation to finalize the treatment. The patient goes in weekdays for the treatment, and doesn’t go in on holidays, at least where I was getting my treatment. The Huntsman Cancer Institute isn’t open on holidays. Other cancer clinics and hospitals may be.
I didn’t have this. My treatment was 15 days. I had this reduced treatment period because I joined a research study and was randomized into the experimental arm. My treatment consisted of what I’d have been getting had I gone the six-plus weeks, with my boost administered at the same time. I forgot to get information on what substance they were using for my treatment, and though I did think to ask after dosages, I didn’t write it down and didn’t get a chance to before I forgot. I’ll get that information when I see my radiation oncologist in May.
At the Huntsman, cancer treatment involves changing into a gown. Since it was my breast, I removed only my shirt and bra and wrapped the gown around myself. Then a wait in a small waiting room with other female cancer patients (men had their own changing and waiting rooms). When called back to the treatment area, I’d walk up a hall with the technician and stop at a computer to state my name and birthdate, something they have patients do to ensure they have the right one and that they’re thinking clearly. Usually a tech would fetch a warm blanket for me.
This is the radiation machine. Its bed/table already has my mold on it, covered by a sheet so I wouldn’t stick to the plastic which held the substance. The part at the top is where the radiation comes from, and there’s a little panel on the bottom end of the machine which extends out, I suppose to “catch” the radiation.
For treatment, I’d climb onto the table, make sure my rump settled against the butt-bump, which is barely visible in the lower right hand corner of the image, and arrange my head, shoulders, and arms as the mold dictates. Once I was basically comfortable, a tech would raise the bed and both would proceed to roll or tug me enough to get me into proper position for the treatment. Once or twice, they had to tape my right arm a bit so no part of it would be in the field of the radiation. The first time, about midway through treatments on the seventh or eighth day, and the last day, they took X-rays to ensure I was in proper position.
If you look at the image, you’ll see the rotational part of the floor, to which the bed is connected. First, the bed would run up into this, putting my head close to the screen on the machine. As this occurred, the top of the machine rotates to the left. I’d usually have to adjust my left arm so it wouldn’t hit my elbow; the whole thing is about two or three feet across. Since my head faced to the left, I got to see the face of the administration area every day; rows of bars which look like ribbing frame the area; they can be adjusted so only the area assigned for treatment receives the radiation. A light would shine from this area as it adjusted for treatment.
Once everything was positioned correctly, the radiation machine would proceed to hum and buzz and click as treatment was given. There is no physical sensation to this. No pain, no warming of the skin, no tingling. Nothing.
The machine would then rotate to my right for additional treatment. I’m not sure exactly what part was the boost, but this was definitely step two. As the machine rotated, it would click as the ribbing-bars under its glass face were adjusted to shape for administering radiation on the right side of my breast. I never saw what it did precisely, because I was not permitted to move my head from its position; to do so may have shifted me too much for treatment to be accurate. Once the machine settled on the right side, with the black panel thing extended in my view, the machine would hum and buzz and click again. Again, no sensation accompanied this.
After this, the techs would come in and adjust the bed’s position so they could put the cone on (see in image above). This is designed to block off the additional radiation so it would affect only the area of my breast where the lump was. I think this was the boost, but I can’t be certain without asking, so don’t quote me. The techs left and more clicking and buzzing and humming for the last step of treatment.
With this, treatment would be completed, and they’d lower and pull the bed out of position so I could move around and sit up.