Surviving Breast Cancer: Casey’s Story (Part Three) Starting Treatment.

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Casey is a two time breast cancer survivor who is sharing her experience during her proton therapy treatments at Provision CARES Proton Therapy Knoxville. Catch up on her story first by reading part one and part two of her blog series.

As a Care Coordinator for Provision CARES Proton Therapy Knoxville and going through radiation therapy for the first time for recurring breast cancer, I can absolutely say that radiation therapists are gems…each and every one of them.

After initial office visits, CT Simulation, and treatment planning are finished it is time to start radiation therapy and these folks, the radiation therapists, are right there in the trenches with you. For the next 7 weeks I will see these wonderful people day in and day out to “finish off” this breast cancer.

Working at Provision gave me a sense of calm about the end result but to be candid, I was still nervous about the process.  Would I know what to do and say?  Is it weird to just lay on the table and be alone while radiation is being delivered?  What does it feel like?  Will I be self-conscious being exposed from the waist up?

Trust me when I tell you these therapists are experts at what they do. Zane, who manages the radiation therapists, was present for my first day.  He explained everything to me as it was happening which was particularly helpful to me. A quick example:  Zane explained body positioning, and how important it was to relax while being still. Proton therapy is very individualized which means no two plans are alike.  Your plan is specific to your tumor size and site, your physical body size and contours and believe it or not, your breathing!  These radiation oncologists and physicists think of everything.  

After putting on a gown you are escorted to the treatment room and use a step stool to get on to a slightly raised table.  In my case, radiation was going to be delivered with my arms above my head while I was lying flat with my knees slightly bent and supported.  There is a mold for my arms to rest in that was made specifically for me.  I remained covered up with a sheet until it was time for the actual treatment which was important to me.  The next and maybe most appreciated step for me:  MUSIC! It was calming and an immediate source of comfort for me.  The therapists will ask you each day what you feel like listening to that day.  This was a godsend to me as the music eased my nerves and passed the time.  

I was unprepared for, but very impressed by, the perfection in positioning the therapists strive for.  This is of utmost importance as the precise delivery (within a millimeter) of the proton beam depends on it.  Before your actual treatment, one of our Radiation Oncologists will check the position of the patient and give the okay for proton delivery.  The therapists leave the room and you are alone for about 90 seconds during treatment.  You are never truly alone as you are being watched remotely, and after a few treatments you become very accustomed to the whole process.  

Truthfully, it is a very quiet and calm time in the treatment room.  There were no smells or sounds to really get used to and I did not “feel” the radiation delivery.  For me, it was a time of reflection…a time to really think and appreciate what these fine folks do day in and day out.  I never got the feeling that it wasjust a job for them.  I always felt like I was the only patient there that day when in reality, there were up to 80 patients being treated in three treatment rooms.

Weekly visits with the clinical team are also part of your radiation therapy treatment.  This is an important step in monitoring your skin and any other changes you may be going through such as fatigue.   As I proceeded through treatment my only symptom was a significant “sunburn” to the areas treated.  I was prepared for this and used creams and lotions that were suggested by my doctor.  It was an easily forgotten side effect for me, though uncomfortable for a short period of time.  

Every Friday I was given a treatment schedule for the next week.  Wait, no weekends?.. a whole two days without radiation treatment?  I wondered “What will I do without the conversations and encouragement from Amos, Chris, Jamie and Jennifer?  They were my people.  My lifesavers. My friends.  I can do this, and I will do this with the help of these compassionate, kind and relatable therapists.

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