Best to take a long view when battling cancer

Joan Oliver
Joan Oliver

Cancer treatment is not for those who demand instant gratification.

In my case, this process has been going on since late March, when a lump was found in my right breast. Since then, there have been mammograms, biopsies, ultrasounds, MRIs and eventually a double lumpectomy in June, not only to remove the tumor, but also to rule out cancer in my left breast.

Most of July was spent healing and setting up the next step. My wonderful surgeon was able to get out all of the tumor, which was a relief. The tumor itself was found to be a slow-grower. That, coupled with its size, meant that I would not need to do any chemotherapy.

However, standards from the National Comprehensive Cancer Network (nccn.org) indicate that radiation treatments will lower my risk of having the cancer return.

In fact, although only a teeny bit of pre-cancer was found in the tissue that was removed from my left breast, radiation also was recommended there. However, my wonderful radiology oncologist determined that radiation probably was a bit of overkill on that side, so we’re moving ahead with radiation only on the right.

So then it was more set-up to make my 22 treatments happen.

A few things to note about the difference between radiation treatments and chemotherapy: Chemo is the one that makes one’s hair, eyebrows and eyelashes fall out. Those infusions usually take several hours to administer, and they aren’t given every day. One’s body definitely needs time to process the high-powered drugs being pumped throughout the body.

Chemotherapy is a systemic treatment meant to root out cancer cells wherever they might be lurking. With breast cancer, this approach usually is used if cancer cells are found in one’s lymph nodes, which is evidence that the cancer has spread to another part of the body.

In my case, my lymph nodes were clear. Still, there’s still a slight chance that a cancer cell or two might still be hanging out in my right breast. So that’s why radiation is a good idea.

Unlike chemo, radiation treatments usually do not make one’s hair fall out. And the treatments are quick (five minutes for me) and targeted. However, in order to be effective, they have to be done every day, Monday through Friday.

Possible side effects for radiation are skin irritation and fatigue. So far, after eight treatments, I haven’t had either. Although with me, it’s hard to know whether the fatigue is because of the radiation or because of my allergies or something else. Stress, anyone?

If you looked at me, you wouldn’t be able to tell that I’m fighting cancer. Sometimes I have to remind myself of it, too.

Then I head over to the Sage Cancer Center for a treatment, and I’m reminded that something is going on as I hear the clicks and loud noise of the machine administering the “cloud of energy,” as one of the oncologists described it. But in terms of knowing if anything else is happening, well, I’ll just have to take their word for it. I honestly don’t feel a thing.

I’ll be at this for three more weeks. After that, I’ll be leaving myself in the hands of my medical oncologist, who will be coming up with the next phase of my treatment.

Indeed, this process isn’t for those who expect instant gratification.

However, it does allow one to exercise some patience.

• Joan Oliver is a former Northwest Herald assistant news editor. She has been associated with the Northwest Herald since 1990. She can be reached at jolivercolumn@gmail.com.

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