Now that I’m out of the ‘cancer closet,’ I’d like to share some of the tips I picked up from the experience. None of this process is fun, but it can be less difficult.
1. Get the deodorant before it’s necessary. The day before radiation treatments started one casually mentioned to me that most deodorants contain metal and could irritate the skin during this process. An exception was a brand called “Tom’s” that might be found at Walmart. You’re just NOW telling me this? (To be fair, it may have been stated somewhere in the bubblegum-pink Texas-sized tote bag they gave me full of pamphlets, but by the time I received that I was so sick of reading about cancer I shoved it behind a couch to dim its pink glow). I finally found Tom’s. It was reminiscent of citronella. Good – I’d smell better while not having to worry about armpit mosquito bites. Find organic options ahead of time and have one on hand.
2. Weird changes are normal. I expected things to look and feel different once radiation started, but wait – there’s more! If, like me, you have a sense of smell so acute you can detect a potato rotting a week before the skin is marred, you may notice an enhanced aroma from the radiated site in a: “What the . . . is that me?” sort of way. Yes, it is. Pass the citronella please.
3. “Breast cancer is not an emergency.” So says Deborah Capok, M.D., surgical oncologist at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. After I was diagnosed, some were shocked that I took weeks to make a decision about the type of surgery and treatment I wanted to pursue (more on that unpleasant bit Monday). I was heartened to see an article wherein Dr. Capok advocated taking the necessary time to gather information and look into all treatment options.
4. Find out your ointment options before the burn. Prior to starting radiation, a Cherokee woman relayed to me that she successfully minimized the burns by using milk from the aloe plant as soon as treatment began. She said one could use aloe gel (found at health stores) as an alternative. So I stocked up on aloe gel and used it liberally from the first day on. I was told repeatedly by radiology staffers that my skin looked good at different stages – not as bad as many they had seen with the same amount of treatments. As the skin got a more vibrant pink (that blasted color is everywhere) the doctor said it was time to talk about lotion options. I told her about my aloe gel regimen and she was fine with me continuing with it because it was working well for me. I asked why this subject wasn’t discussed early on so one can take a preventative approach. She said: “Most women use a topical cream daily in those areas so it’s not necessary to discuss it until there’s a problem.” Oh. Either I’m not like ‘most women’ or she’s mistaken. I’m going with the former explanation, because to prove her wrong I’d have to ask ‘most women’ a question I have no intention of asking.
5. Protect what’s vulnerable. Areas of skin in ‘folds’ are more susceptible to intense burn reactions. A staff member made a suggestion that worked for me. Put a soft rolled-up tank top (or other small fabric item) under the breast and under the arm when sitting around the house. I’m not talking armpit here – I’m talking about that baby-soft place on your side (between armpit and ribs) that only sees the sun if you’re a beach volleyball player. The point is to keep skin-to-skin friction at a minimum. Because it’s harder to secure something under the arm, I didn’t buffer that location as much and paid the friction price!
6. Keep it moving. As the skin burns, it shrinks and tightens (remember that nasty sunburn you once had?). If you don’t push through a little discomfort to stretch the skin, you are setting yourself up for a painful event. I asked the doctor if swimming was okay and she said that was a great choice – anything that kept that arm and skin moving on a regular basis. She added that I shouldn’t overdo it by lifting weights. Whew! I could now justify deleting “joining the gym” from my yet-to-be-done New Year’s Resolution List – doctor’s orders!
7. Contribute to a pleasant environment. You already know that having a positive attitude will serve you well in difficult times. There are things you can do to make the experience as positive as possible. As one dear friend says: “Less bad is good.”
- Don’t just go through your paces – interact with your treatment team. These are very interesting people – not to mention they have great tips to share.
- For my own entertainment, I named the radiation machine so I could say things like: “I’m headed out to see Yve – be back in an hour” and “Man, Yve sure took her good sweet time today.” I took pictures of me and Yve. (The last one – not shown here – is me waving goodbye. Well, not ‘waving’ exactly – but gesturing goodbye in a way that indicated I wouldn’t miss her.)
- Bring your own music for your treatments or that stressful MRI. Maybe the theme from Rocky, or a peaceful instrumental. Not only can you create your own mood, it helps avoid Pandora’s insensitive selections such as Another One Bites the Dust and Knock, Knock, Knocking on Heaven’s Door. (Yes, those are real examples.)
I’m shooting for Monday to wrap up this mini-series on cancer with my promised list of what to say, and what NOT to say when someone tells you they have cancer.
Above are a few things that helped me. If you have tips or suggestions, please share them with us in the comment section below.