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What To Expect During Radiation Treatment

I recently appeared as a guest on the weekly SiriusXM radio talk show THE MOMS to discuss with host Denise Albert her upcoming radiation treatment.

Denise has breast cancer, and chose to have a lumpectomy with chemotherapy and radiation instead of a mastectomy.

Long-term studies have shown that her type and stage of cancer can be successfully treated with either lumpectomy and chemo/radiation or mastectomy with chemo.

Denise had her lumpectomy, followed by a year of chemotherapy, and is now preparing for the last step, six weeks of daily radiation. As would be expected of a patient who is also a radio host, she had a lot of questions for me, and of course I loved being a resource to a woman who helps so many others with great advice.

Here are some highlights from our conversation:

How long will the radiation take each day?

In your case, the treatment itself will take only about 3 minutes.  The actual time you should budget is around 15-30 minutes.  You have to change out of your clothes and put on a treatment gown.  There can be some waiting before your turn on the machine.

Does it hurt?

If you have back problems or trouble raising your arms above your head, you might feel a little discomfort on the treatment table.  In some circumstances, you have to hold your breath during treatment to draw your heart away from your chest wall, which some people find unsettling, but from the radiation itself you won’t feel a thing.

Will I be tired?

By the second half of your treatment period (the last three weeks), you may begin to feel tired.  It is a combination of the radiation action on your cells and the repair that your body conducts for normal tissue.  The stress from the commute each day and from being in the treatment center can also be exhausting.

Can I exercise while receiving radiation?

Of course!  Check with your physician first, but in most situations I encourage people to keep up with their usual routine.  When patients express exhaustion then I suggest cutting back.  Many people find that exercise boosts their energy, and we know it’s good for the immune system.  It helps with appetite and keeping a digestion “regular.” After exercising, make sure you change into clean dry clothes.  Don’t sit in a wet sports bra.  You can get chilled and your skin is more likely to break down with irritation and even a yeast infection.  If you’re a swimmer, make sure your physician gives you the ok. Some chemical in pools and some fresh water is not good for compromised skin.

Can I skip a treatment?

Not unless your physician puts you on “break.”  Radiation works best when it is administered on a daily basis or even twice daily in some situations.  If you are too ill to come in for treatment, you should be coming in to see your physician for evaluation.

Is there a “best time” of the day to receive treatment?

Usually, I recommend scheduling radiation during a low stress time of the day, if that is possible.  Sometimes people like to do it before work, others at lunch time or after dropping children at school.  Remember, as the day goes on, the machine can often get backed up, especially at busy hospitals/treatment centers.  Ask the technician who does the scheduling for his or her best advice on when you can speed in and out, if you’re one of those people that can’t stand to wait.  And remember, waiting rooms are just that—people sitting around chatting or reading.  If you don’t feel like talking to others, ask for a quiet spot to wait.  If you seek company and companionship, support, it’s a great place to find it.  Remember, everyone’s cancer is different.  Often one person’s experience will not be the same for another.

What other advice can you give?

Get a big wall calendar and cross off the days, or install a countdown app on your screensaver. It will make you feel so much better to see the end in sight.   And keep your head up.  A positive attitude can often make all the difference.

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One Comment

  1. Gail Rogers

    You were right on about advice and suggestions on radiation treatment.
    Thank you so much!

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