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For Everyone Touched By Cancer

Me And My Breast Cancer Radiation Journey: What You Cant See

Written by Dr Shara Cohen on 
30th October, 2017
Updated: 4th February, 2024
Estimated Reading Time: 5 minutes

Buckingham Palace

By a very tenuous connection, a friend of mine invited me to a garden party at Buckingham Palace just at the end of my radiotherapy treatment.

I have never been before and will probably never go again.  Something I wasn't going to turn down.  But as it was nearing the end of my radiation therapy treatment it was definitely not a good time.

This image (the only picture I let my husband take) is of me in the grounds of Buckingham Palace,  they were setting up for a concert for the evening.  But there are three things that you don't see in this blurred smiling image.

Me And My Radiotherapy Treatment: What You Cant See

The Decision Of What To Wear

Of course, the decision on what to wear was important, the invitation stressed smart. Over my (many) years I have built up a collection of some very smart, well-fitting (and I mean body-hugging) flowery dresses which were perfect for a garden party. Elegant, a bit sexy (not too much) and very smart.  I knew exactly which dress I was going to wear when I got the invitation.  The best image I could find to show you was this blue one here.

The dress I didnt wear because of my radiotherapy treatment

The problem was my cancer surgery and my radiotherapy treatment.

In the morning when I got dressed, the very tight dress that I had planned to wear didn't fit right.  Two months before this invitation I had a lumpectomy.  Only a small amount of breast was removed and after the surgery, I had been lounging about in casual clothes, so it didn't occur to me that my shape would change.  That morning I realized that one breast was significantly smaller now than the other.  Tight clothes were out (unless I used padding, but I wasn't prepared for that).  In later weeks I discussed this with my oncologist who said, that if I wanted I could have reconstruction surgery.  Although I wasn't too sure about more surgery I asked my breast cancer surgeon who said no!.  He said he had only taken away a small bit of breast and it shouldn't be noticeable.  I am not sure he realized just how tight my dresses were!  But that's a different story, four years on and my wardrobe has changed completely!  The shape change was only the start of my 'what to wear at Buckingham Palace' saga.  The other thing that hadn't occurred to me when I got the invitation, and no one warned me about, was the effect that my radiation treatments would have on my skin.

How to deal with my radiation therapy blisters

Radiotherapy is a bit like childbirth.  No one really talks about it and the only way you can understand what it's like is to go through it.  Most of my radiation treatments were a breeze.  A short time in the radiotherapy clinic every day, a bit tired and then back to a normal day.  What no one tells you (unless you ask someone who has had radiation therapy treatments) is that near the end (and a long time after) you start to develop burns and blisters.  The Buckingham Palace event was a few days before the end of my breast radiation therapy I recall, and the area by my armpit and side of the breast was beginning to ooze fluid and feel very sore.  It was in fact severely burned and oozing & scabbing from the effect of the burns.

Advice for radiotherapy-induced "oozing of fluid" includes

  • Keep the treated area dry.
  • Do not use deodorants.
  • Wear loose-fitting clothing that does not rub on the skin in the treated area.
  • Avoid harsh fabrics over the treatment area, such as wool, corduroy, or starched cloth. Lightweight cotton is recommended.
  • Avoid sun exposure in the treated area.
  • Unless necessary, do not use adhesive tape, including band-aids and paper tape on the treated area.

So logically it wasn't a good idea to wear something that covered my burns.  I had to quickly find a dress in my wardrobe that fulfilled all the above criteria.  A loose sleeveless dress (a bit frumpy) with a jacket was what was chosen (as in the picture).  This was my "fat" dress for those times when I had put on a few pounds or was bloated etc.  BUT, what about the oozing fluid?  Although I was given gauze by the hospital most of this had been used up already.  So I spend my day at Buckingham Palace stuffing toilet paper in my bra, to absorb the fluid and trying to tape toilet paper to the side of my body (which kept coming off).

What to say about my radiation therapy treatments

I wasn't invited to Buckingham Palace because I had cancer, but it just so happened that the friend who invited me was with a company promoting a machine that can detect cancer early.  So when I was with him his colleague proceeded in telling me about Angelina Jolie and her cancer and how his machine could help.  All I remember about this conversation was my thought process, I cannot remember what I actually said.

My thought process was

Do I just politely agree with him and ask questions about this machine?

If I do this both my friend and husband who were with me and know I am having cancer treatment, might think that I am avoiding the subject and it may make them feel uneasy about talking to me about my cancer.

Do I tell him I am having cancer treatment and understand how this machine can help?

If I told him I could risk embarrassment and stop a conversation.  As during the cancer journey, I discovered that I can stop the conversation dead by telling people my diagnosis.  I didn't want to embarrass him or my friend.

I can not remember what I said I suspect that whatever it was sounded rude (I have been called "that scary woman" before), but I did have a lovely time.

The day was an experience that I won't forget and attending whilst at the end of one of my treatments enriched the experience.  It took my mind off my radiotherapy (in between stuffing toilet paper in and around my bra), it reminded me that there is life going on outside of hospitals and clinics and I am sure that the way I dealt with my day at Buckingham Palace was unique.

FAQ

Do all breast cancer patients have radiation therapy?

No!. Radiation therapy is typically for patients who have undergone surgery to remove a tumor to reduce the risk of cancer returning. It can also be used to treat cancer that has spread to lymph nodes. The decision to use radiation therapy is made by breast cancer specialists, taking into account factors such as the stage and type of cancer, the breast cancer patients overall health, and treatment goals.

What are typical side effects of radiation therapy?

Radiation therapy can cause a variety of side effects.

Common side effects during radiation therapy:
*Fatigue
*Skin irritation or redness at the site of treatment
*Nausea
*Loss of appetite

Side effects that may occur after treatment :
*Fatigue
*Skin changes
*Swelling or hardening of the breast

Not everyone will experience side effects of radiation therapy and the severity can vary.

Thoughtful Radiotherapy Gifts

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