Friday, November 26, 2010

Radiation 101

Monday is the start of the last phase of my breast cancer treatment.  Radiation therapy.  Here's how it works.

Radiation therapy for breast cancer uses high-powered X-rays to kill cancer cells. Rapidly growing cells, such as cancer cells, are more susceptible to the effects of radiation therapy than are normal cells.

“Cancer cell growth is unwieldy and uncontrolled—these cells just don't have their act together like normal cells do. When normal cells are damaged by radiation, they are like a big city with a fire and police department and trained emergency squads to come and 'put out the fire.' Damaged cancer cells are more like a disorganized mob with a bucket. ”  Marisa Weiss M.D., 

When receiving radiation therapy for breast cancer, the patient may either receive external or internal radiation.

■External radiation. External beam radiation, the standard type of radiation therapy, delivers radiation in the form of high-powered energy beams, such as X-rays, to your entire breast from a machine outside your body. This is the most common type of radiation therapy used for breast cancer.

■Internal radiation. Internal radiation, or brachytherapy, involves placing small radioactive devices in your breast near the tumor site to deliver radiation to affected breast tissue. Internal radiation may be used as an extra radiation boost after external radiation or for small, contained tumors.

Radiation therapy may be used to treat breast cancer at almost every stage. It's an effective way to reduce your risk of breast cancer coming back (recurring) after surgery. It can also help control the spread of breast cancer and offer pain relief for advanced breast cancer.

I will be having external radiation, and Monday will be my simulation.  It's how they always prepare for the real deal.

My radiation team consists of the following medical professionals:  my radiation oncologist, Dr. Lotus, who specializes in the treatment of cancer patients using radiation therapy; the dosimetrist, who helps the radiation oncologist plan the dosage and field of radiation; the radiation technician, who operates the machine that delivers the radiation; and the radiation nurse, who will help position me and make it as comfortable as possible during treatment.  It's very important I do not move at all during radiation.

Receiving radiation in itself is pain free, but it does have some frequent side effects.  The most common is fatigue, usually starting a week or two after the start of treatment, and getting worse as treatment goes on.  Some people also experience skin sensitivity, the skin can turn pink or red or tan, and in the case of breast cancer patients, breast swelling.

Radiation therapy can often cause permanent hair loss at the site.

Do you think I could get them to do my upper lip?  Will this mean I won't have to shave under my left arm?

Radiation is delivered in short doses, usually about 20 minutes long, over 2 to 10 weeks.  I will be going for five weeks, 28 sessions.

So there you have it.  The most important thing for you to know about radiation treatment for breast cancer?

It can reduce the risk of recurrence up to 70%.

Light me up baby.

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