Tag Archives: radiation

Dem Bones

I just had another bone scan.  I like the bone scan, as I have mentioned before, repeatedly, and to anyone who will listen.  I just happen to think it’s amazing to see my whole skeleton on the computer screen. Really, who ever gets to see every bone in their body, from head to toe(s)?  I think it’s totally fascinating. Not to mention rather seasonal, what with Halloween right around the corner.

For the uninitiated, the bone scan takes place in the terrifyingly named Nuclear Medicine Lab, and involves getting an injection of tracer fluid, which comes in a lead tube with this symbol all over it: 

radioactive 2

I never tire of saying that they give me this radioactive injection “just in case I don’t already have cancer,” and today I thought it would be funny to say it to the lab technicians handling the injection.  They didn’t laugh.  They looked at me and blinked and kept doing their thing.  Clearly they’re not so much into cancer humour down there in the ol’ Nuke Lab. 

Actually, for all the Chernobylesque weirdness of it, the needle is tiny and doesn’t hurt at all.  The fluid travels through the blood stream to the kidneys and into the bones, which then magically light up onscreen when they slide you through the giant George Foreman Grill type apparatus. This takes about twenty minutes.

Painless, fascinating, and effective for diagnosing any trouble cancer might be causing in dem bones.  What’s not to love about this test?

Also, I make a nice nightlight for a few days. 

Not true, I just wrote that to irritate the lab techs.  But if I were to have to fly somewhere in the next couple of days, I would set off the security alarms at the airport. For this purpose, you can get a special post-scan medical card that says that you are not a bomb (not in so many words.)

Here are some things I learned today:

  • An x-ray looks at the anatomy of bones whereas a bone scan looks at the physiology.  In other words, an x-ray knows what my bones look like, and a bone scan knows what they’re doing.
  • With an x-ray, the radiation comes from the machine, whereas with a bone scan the radiation comes from you.  And you were worried about standing in front of the microwave.
  • Because the radioactive tracer fluid goes through the kidneys into the bones and is then expelled through urine, all you’ll see in the imaging is bones, and sometimes kidney and bladder, which show up as black spots.  This is very important to remember since when people with caner see any kind of black dots whatsoever on medical imaging they tend to freak right out.

Coming soon: the actual scan images of my skeleton…  Hoping to pick them up from the hospital records desk in time for my Halloween post!  Spooky!



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A Cancer Primer

A friend of mine recently told me that when I talk about cancer, she gets a little lost in all the medical terminology and references to different kinds of treatments.  It’s a slippery slope, and I can see now that I have slid it. To make amends for my spouting of esoteric mumbo jumbo, herewith, a Cancer Primer:


Cancer Strong contender for Most Terrifying Word in the English language; also known as the C-Word, the Darth Vadar of disease, and “the little word with the big stink.”  Meaning: A disease that involves abnormal or uncontrolled cell division.  Basically your good cells get overtaken and/or crowded out by bad cells.  This doesn’t happen because you did something wrong, no matter what anyone including that nasty little voice in your head tries to tell you.

Metastatic Breast Cancer (Also, “mets” in cancer-lingo.) The scary, hairy, foul-breathed boogeyman of breast cancer. It means your breast cancer has spread to other parts of your body. But it is still called “breast cancer” no matter where it goes (bones, organs, lymph nodes…) Imagine you are Turkish, and you visit Newfoundland for some whale watching or, God forbid, turbot-fishing. You are still Turkish.  You are not considered Canadian just because you came to Canada for the fish.  OK, so perhaps this analogy is a bit obscure.  What I’m saying is, it’s not that your breasts have travelled to your liver, but that the invading cells are the offspring of the original trouble-makers. When this happens, they just add the M-Word to the C-Word and voila! Your C-Word gets cranked up a few stages (see “Staging” below.)

Biopsy This is when they physically extract suspicious cells from your body and send them to a lab for questioning under a microscope. They have lots of different kinds of biopsies, some of which are less unpleasant than others, but eventually you’ll get an answer. Oh yes, you’ll talk, little cells… You’ll sing like little cancerous canaries…

Pathology  The specific nature of your disease as defined by the characteristics of your cancer cells.  Some breast cancers are related to hormones, some are not; some breast cancer cells have certain proteins on them, others do not.  The lab identifies exactly what the cells are made of so the oncologists know whether to use the medical equivalent of numchucks or molotov cocktails.  All breast cancer cells are stupid jerks, you don’t need a microscope to see that.

Radiation I think everyone has a basic idea of what happens with radiation – you nuke the cancer.  In a localized, laser-beam sort of way. Check out “radiation” in the tags for more details.

Chemotherapy Ah, notorious chemo: the bald-making, sick-making, cancer-killing drug therapy. Actually, not all chemotherapies make you bald and many are much improved in the sick-making department too. They’ve come a long way, baby.  And they’re not all administered by IV drip, either – some (like my capecitabine) are pills.  Think of chemo like an army that goes in and wipes out everything good along with everything bad, with the intention of rebuilding the good stuff later (this usually works better in chemotherapy than in Bush Administration foreign policy.) The somewhat arbitrary attack plan explains hair loss; if chemo drugs are designed to attack fast-reproducing cells – like cancer cells – they’ll knock out hair cells too. Hair loss can be an incredibly devastating, psychologically debilitating, massive downer. You look in the mirror and see “cancer” looking back.  On the upside, people will give you their seat on the bus and eventually, the hair grows back. 

Targeted Therapies These newer cancer treatments are less arbitrary than chemo, and more targeted to the specific cellular stuff happening with certain cancers. For example, they may work in conjunction with chemotherapy to deliver the toxic drugs directly to the cancer cells (smart-bombing) or they may be designed to prevent the tumour from developing the blood vessels it needs to feed itself and grow.  Let’s all just take a moment here and be collectively creeped out that tumours develop blood vessels and feed themselves.  Seriously. It’s gross. It’s like something from a Ridley Scott movie.

Staging This is when they measure your cancer and kind of rank how bad it is.  Not that anyone ever says “it’s somewhat bad,” or “it’s extremely bad.” They will just talk about how much it has spread, how big the tumour is, where it is in proximity to organs, etc.  Stage 0 cancer is called “in situ” and means it hasn’t moved one little bit, and Stage IV is the big M.  People sometimes also talk about “high grade” and “low grade” cancer. This is another measure of the likelihood of the cancer to move around or otherwise become a greater pain in the a**.  In addition, you’ll hear about things like “triple positive” or “double negative” cancers – this isn’t a measure of the extent of the cancer but of its nature (estrogen, progesterone or HER-2 positive or negative) so don’t let it freak you out.  

There are many more terms in the cancer lexicon – far, far too many – but that, I think, is enough cancer talk for one day.

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Still Cooking

It appears I am a big liar – I don’t have weeks of radiation to go: I AM DONE! Radiation therapy is officially over!

I realize I recently posted that I still had a few weeks left. I have absolutely no idea why I thought that my 6 weeks of radiation therapy had morphed into something closer to 8, but by way of explanation I can only refer you to a previous post describing my “chemo brain.”

The point is I’m done and I no longer have to go into the hospital every single day! I am sick, burnt, feverish, exhausted and yet I haven’t experienced a feeling of freedom like this since the first day of summer holidays back in high school! Right after the bell rang and just before the boredom kicked in.

However I don’t think I’ll be bored with not having to go to the hospital every day anymore. Not a chance. Au contraire.

“The thing is,” the medical radiation technician said to me, as I hopped off the table for the very last time, “The effects will continue for another week and a half or so.” Perhaps this is why my end-date was fixed in my mind as being another two weeks hence.

“Yes,” I said, “I know, I’ll keep cooking.”

“Well, we don’t say cooking…” Replied the technician.

“No. Of course you wouldn’t. What do you call it then?”

“What is actually happening,” she explained, “Is that the cells xhskdjhfoi kdsjfosid sdhfoijgldfkn gliohjhfi and then kjhklf fdfgiodgfdfjghidfuhgjfdih dfjuhgoih so it will take about a week to ten days before you stop seeing these effects and things begin to normalize.”

I blinked twice to express my exact degree of comprehension.

The technician looked at me for a second the way I sometimes look at my daughter when I’m not sure if my explanation as to why we don’t pull leaves off houseplants is being processed or blatantly ignored. Then the technician kind of sighed and explained again how to continue to treat the area; what to do if the burns, the peeling, the raw flesh become too uncomfortable.

“Got it.” I replied, thanking them all and beating a hasty retreat to the change cubicle before anyone else tried to teach me scientific synonyms for “cooking.”

My dad called to congratulate me on the end of radiation therapy and I relayed this exchange to him. He agreed with me about the still-cooking theory.

“Makes sense,” he said, “Like taking a steak off the grill, or a turkey out of the oven and letting it rest before slicing. It continues to cook a bit.”

“Right, and the juices reconstitute!” I added, somewhat irrelevantly. I was just excited that the cooking analogy was making sense to someone else, albeit someone with the same medical expertise as me. “Except there’ll be no slicing, thank-you.”

“Nope,” said my dad, laughing, “You’ve had that done already.”

Giggling ensued. We are getting a lot of mileage out of this still-cooking thing, I tell you.


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A Red Christmas

Imagine your worst sunburn.  Or not yours, but that of a tourist passed out from too many cervezas under the full fury of a mid-day Mexican sun.  A sunburn of the bright red bubbling skin variety.  Now imagine that you have to keep exposing that epic sunburn to the sun for two more weeks.  And that after you finish exposing the skin to the sun for two more weeks, it will keep on cooking for about a week and a half. 


Welcome to my underarm.  Ay carumba.  It’s quite something.


The rest of my left chest area has its hotspots too, but my underarm feels like ground zero of the blast radius.  The constant friction isn’t helping, but unless I can figure a way to function normally while walking around half naked with my left arm raised all day, there’s not much I can do about that. 


My doctor recommended saline soaks four times a day, and this is helping. (Abridged Princess Margaret Hospital saline soak recipe below for anyone experiencing similar problems)


I was under the misapprehension that radiation would be a “cakewalk” compared to chemo.  This is a myth. Yes, chemo makes you bald, and that alone is just plain mean.  And yes, you can get very sick and your bones may feel like they are going to explode, but there are breaks between these periods of agony and torture; days of respite from the side-effects.  Radiation’s daily regime can be extremely wearing and disheartening.  And radiation burns notwithstanding, I’m just sick of going to the hospital every day.


On the upside, I have only TWO WEEKS of treatment left.  Count ’em.  This is light – clear and bright – at the end of one hell of a tunnel.


SALINE SOAK – do this 3-4 times a day:

·         Mix 4 cups of water with one level teaspoon of salt & boil for 10 minutes.

·         Allow water/salt (saline) solution to cool.

·         Wash your hands and pour enough saline solution in to a bowl to just soak a clean, soft cloth. (You can save the remainder of the solution in a clean, covered jar for 24 hrs.)

·         Wring out excess solution, sit or lie down, and place the cloth over the affected area for 10-15 minutes. (Read a book, watch TV, call a friend…)

·         Remove cloth before it dries – if it dries before 10-15 minutes, apply more solution before attempting to remove cloth from skin.

·         Allow area to dry for 10-15 minutes. (Read some more, change channel, call another friend…)

NOTE: Do NOT put talcum powder, cornstarch (cornstarch??!) or moisturizer on cracked/open skin. And use a clean bowl & cloth each time you do the soak.

Good luck, stay strong, look at the light.




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Getting There

I don’t drive.  Meaning I don’t have a driving license, I can’t drive and I certainly can’t parallel park.  I know I could learn; the biggest morons in the world can drive, surely I can too – that’s not the point.  The point is I haven’t learned yet and I’m 37.


If you are living anywhere other than right downtown in a big city, you are probably re-reading that to make sure you understood me correctly.  That’s right: I DON’T DRIVE AND I’M 37.  Actually, even born-and-bred city types are frequently incredulous, though they often know someone else my age without a driver’s license.  Probably someone who, like me, enjoys boasting about his/her environmental consciousness, even though being mindful of my carbon footprint really has nothing to do with why I never learned to drive. (It’s laziness, if you must know.)


I raise this issue because I have grown extremely dependent of late on my driving friends, and my mom in particular, to get me to and from the hospital each and every day.  Public transit is to be avoided whenever possible during cold/flu season because of my compromised immune system.  And because it’s miserable to be out in the cold waiting for the streetcar.  And also because let’s face it, its just way nicer to go with someone to these appointments and to have some company in the waiting room.  Case in point: Today my brother came, and now I know how to play electronic poker.


Since my mother is the one who takes me most of the time, these trips to hospital have become little opportunities for us to visit and catch up – the silver lining on the mushroom cloud of radiation. However I think my backseat-driving is beginning to wear a little thin.  I know it’s preposterous, but I can’t help myself – I have been a passenger my whole life and I know what should be done even if I can’t do it myself.  Kind of like a food critic, or an art critic.  (When I use this argument my mother reminds me that I despise critics of any kind and denigrate them at every opportunity.) We have now agreed that I will not judge or instruct her on her driving until I myself am capable of doing an equal or better job.  Imagine if the chefs and artists could get the same deal from their critics??


But I digress.


The point is that I had started to think I might go my whole life without a driving license –  and I may yet – but I’m no longer so content with the idea.  Even though I suspect my husband and friends of having a betting pool on whether my daughter will get her license before I do (she’s two and a half) I long ago became deaf to their teasing.  But now that I am required to make the short 7-cityblock trip to the hospital every single day it has started to feel a little silly not to be able to drive it myself.  Cancer has taught me many things about courage and strength and hope.  Could it be it’s meant to teach me to drive too?


Then again, if I get my license I lose the ability to boast about my zero-carbon footprint.   Hmmm… self-reliance or self-righteousness?  Tough call. 

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Radiant Schmadiant

This year the holidays feel like they’re headed at me like a laserbeam.  I’m totally knackered from the radiation and this fatigue makes the usual holiday bustle a little daunting. I’m also still feeling some chemotherapy side effects, including a hormonal tailspin that comes with abrupt cessation of ovarian function.  This means that I’m prone to a lot more anxiety than usual – as if cancer, the holidays and this economy weren’t cause enough for a spike in anxiety.


This being week three of radiation, a light red sunburn has appeared on my skin in the area they blast — which is most of my left side (underarm, upper back and chest.)  I am literally “radiant.”  I’m told I’ll be getting even more of a glow as this treatment goes on, which eliminates the option of wearing any strappy or low-cut little numbers to holiday parties this year.  (I know there’s a joke in there somewhere about Rudolph the Red Boobed Reindeer but I’m just too pooped to think it through.)


It’s not a good combination, this fatigue and anxiety, but nobody ever said the holidays were easy – that myth went the way of believing a fat man in a red suit could shimmy down the chimney. Nobody ever said cancer was easy either, and I’m really feeling it these days.  Maybe during chemo I was so focused on just surviving the poisons and their side effects that I was able to stay in the present, spending my energy in short-term bursts.  Now it seems I am looking ahead to the rest of my year of treatment with dread and a general slumping of shoulders.


Anyway, pass the egg nog, send in the kids, and let’s get some family and friends over here quick, before I get all Ebeneezered out and forget what this time of year is really supposed to be about.



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A Radiation Photo Essay


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Giant Electric Can Opener

I began radiation this week. I’ll be going every day for the next six weeks, except weekends and Christmas day, and I don’t care what your religion is, that’s a blessing.


It’s a heavy schedule, but after chemo, this experience feels more streamlined and somehow less intense. In fact, checking in by scanning my bar-coded pass and watching my session’s status appear on a screen before me (“On Time,” announced the screen) my mother commented that it was a little like checking in for a flight.


True, if your plane happens to be a giant electric can-opener and, once you’ve boarded, your flight lasts no more than about twenty minutes. 


This is the radiation machine:



Can opener, no?  Kitchen mixer maybe?

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