My husband hates tattoos. They are so popular now that he admonished me not to long ago “Never get a tattoo!” Now I have two! As a breast cancer patient receiving radiation, I got a tattoo on either side of my breast, to help the technicians make sure the radiation is going to the same place each time.
Getting the tattoos was hilarious. I went to Massey Cancer Center downtown and put on a dressing gown. A nurse came and got me.
“Are you going to give me my tattoos?” I asked.
“Yes, I give you prison tattoos!” she said in a thick Russian accent. I trembled.
“Prison tattoo? I was hoping you would do this,” I said, showing her a picture of an “Ironman” tattoo that many of my friends have gotten. It is called an “M-dot.”
She looked at it admiringly. “Pretty!” she said. I was hopeful.
“NO! You get prison tattoo!” she concluded.
And so I got the standard issue prison tattoo. No colors, no liveliness. And symbolizing something a lot harder, I’ve got to tell you, than an Ironman.
Radiation isn’t nearly as bad as chemo, though. I was told the main side effects would be sunburn and fatigue. Both side effects would get worse and worse during my six weeks of treatment, and subside a few weeks afterward. I told the doctor about my fitness level, and he said this would mean I wouldn’t have any trouble with the fatigue getting in the way of my work and day-to-day living. “But you will have a crummy run one day,” Dr. Arthur said, “and you will blame me.” He is a marathoner himself, so he knew how to make me laugh. “I’ll do that!” I promised.
I got my radiation treatments every weekday at 6 pm at the Stony Point location of Massey Cancer Center. Dr. Arthur admonished me that I could not miss a single appointment. “Don’t be telling me you’re busy at work and you can’t get here.” he said. I think he’s met lawyers before! I did manage to get to all my appointments on time, often telling folks that I had to go to my tanning booth appointments.
Going to radiation is, in some ways, like going to the gym. Or the tanning booth. I go through the main entrance and sign in with the same guard every night. Then I say hi to the receptionist in radiation oncology and she buzzes me inside. From there I go to a dressing room and change, and then I sit and wait my turn, with ladies who become my friends over our weeks together. A technician gets me and I go into a gigantic room with a huge machine in the middle. There is a second technician helps me lie on a table. There is a block under my butt so I don't slide down, and then I lift my arm over my head and rest it on some padded armrests. After they get me all adjusted they step out of the room. A big screen thing begins to lift up, slowly, tracing from left to right, in an arc, across my chest. As it goes I can feel the progression as tingles that move along. It is really strange feeling. The treatment only lasts a few minutes.
After a few weeks, my breast became bright pink,. The scar under my arm where they took the sample lymph nodes was the worst because my bra rubbed there. OUCH. After a month, everything began to peel. OWWW Worst sunburn EVER. And I’ve had some doozies. I still remember wearning zinc oxide and a t-shirt and staying inside mid-day during our vacations in Florida when I was a little girl. By contrast, my olive-complexioned sister could run around outside all day.
A friend of mine asked me why I didn’t wear sunscreen. I repeated this to the nurse, who was HORRIFIED. Apparently last summer, a patient did wear sunscreen, despite repeated warnings not to use anything on your skin before treatment. She told the nurse, “well, I put on sunscreen right before coming because I didn’t want to burn.” Oh dear. You see, sunscreen does block something or other, and they actually want to torture us with this radiation. This is war, and it’s a war we want to win. The radiation is designed to kill the cancer cells, and unfortunately there’s collateral damage, like in any war. I surely didn’t want to spend an hour every day getting shot with nothing but blanks!
Fatigue was the other expected side effect. The ladies who sat with me each evening were experiencing fatigue. I was tired during Thanksgiving weekend, but decided in the end that the turkey did it. I kept running and cycling during radiation. I also swam. Sometimes I wondered if people noticed my “glow.” My shoulder hurt quite a bit during this time because I used it so little right after surgery.
So, fatigue was nothing. Zingers, on the other hand, were terrible. I was warned that I might be standing there, minding my own business, when I would be struck with something that felt like a lightening bolt in my breast. I felt these--it was as though a nerve was hit errantly. This, they said, was a side effect of radiation. “They only last thirty seconds or a minute,” they promised.
Not so. Turns out if you run for hours and experience a zinger mid-run, it will not go away for hours! I took to wearing four bras again, and taking four ibuprofen. Sometimes I would still be shot with a zinger. I asked Dr. Arthur what people had done in the past. He confessed that he’d never had a patient who trained as much as I did. If you ask the average woman doing her thirty minutes three days a week exercises what she’d do if she were struck with a pain in her breast that felt like a lightening bolt, I think she’d say she would get off the treadmill and go have a glass of wine. But I kept at it. In the end I found the winning combination was four bras and four ibuprofen.