Supporting women whose lives have been touched by breast cancer

for DCIS

by mm

Just after I’d had a core needle biopsy following a suspicious mammogram, I had the opportunity to talk to one of radiographers at the breast screening clinic about what might lie ahead, should I be diagnosed with DCIS. She told me that she herself had been diagnosed with DCIS a few years ago and that what happened afterwards (lumpectomy and radiotherapy) had proved not too hard to deal with. Radiotherapy, she remarked, was more an inconvenience than anything too frightening or unpleasant. She had enjoyed going to the hospital each day, armed with a good book, and having the opportunity to do some reading while she waited to be called for her session.

Listening to this very pleasant and kind lady, picking up on her positive attitude and desire to simply ‘go with the flow’ regarding her diagnosis and treatment, made quite an impression on me. And so, a couple of months later when, following my own lumpectomy for DCIS, I paid my first visit to the oncology department at the hospital, I was feeling buoyed by her words and keen to take on board what she had suggested.

Fully expecting long periods of sitting around waiting, I had bought myself a large, gleaming, metallic bag, well outside my usual fashion comfort zone, and equipped it each day with mini-toiletries, pens, my MP3 player, a newspaper and paperback book. As it turned out, apart from the occasional day when the machine broke down, the most I had time to do was a quick scan of the newspaper as there was very little waiting. But psychologically, the bag helped me to feel not just that I was looking after myself but also in charge of (in a limited but significant way) of what was happening to me.

The first session consisted of the staff measuring me up. Once they identified the area that needed to be treated, two tiny dots were tattooed onto my breast to act as guide marks. This was done so quickly that I couldn’t honestly say if it was painful or not. However, the marks are permanent, and while they are minute they could act as a permanent reminder of your diagnosis, treatment and potential for future problems (however small the chance may be).

I know there is a lot of information available on the Web and in leaflets about what actually happens during treatment so I won’t go into the more technical aspects. What I would like to describe is my own individual experience.

I’m aware that some people have reported finding it quite upsetting to have radiotherapy but personally I found it OK. My skin hasn’t been too sore, although I’m writing this less than a week after finishing treatment and I’ve been told that the side-effects can peak up to two weeks later. The same goes for tiredness. I have had the occasional periods of feeling very lethargic but nothing that wasn’t remedied by a good nap followed by a refreshing cup of tea.

At the risk of sounding trite, one of the most unpleasant things for me, in fact, has been not being able to use a deodorant. Lying on the bed with my arm above my head in a stirrup while the radiographers pushed my body from side to side to get me in the right position, I was horribly conscious of an odour which, thanks to the vast array of products now at our disposal, I hadn’t smelt for a very long time! Washing the area with unperfumed soap and water seemed to make almost no difference (and even then for only a short period of time), and I was mortified with embarrassment that I was subjecting the staff to the smell of BO. I tried to console myself with the knowledge that everyone else they treat for breast cancer is in the same situation and, who knows, that they might have become immune to the smell over time, but even so it really bothered me.

The other thing I wasn’t very comfortable with was the fact that some of the radiographers were young men. It took a fair degree of mental adjustment to deal with lying naked from the waist up on a bed while a young man pushed my torso from side to side. I know they do it on a day-to-day basis but for me it was quite a shock and I always felt relieved on the days when both radiographers were female.

On a more positive note, all the staff I met at the hospital, apart from two rather awkward male registrars who were standing in for the consultant while she was on holiday, were wonderful. They did their best to make me feel like a human being within a procedure that is very fast-paced and potentially dehumanising. There are some very technical aspects to administering radiotherapy which demand that staff literally ‘talk over you’ while you’re lying there, but such procedures were always followed with a few kind words of encouragement.

All in all, it was an experience that was easy to cope with and I’m grateful to everyone who helped to make it that way.