Zoe's Story: Slash, Poison and Burn (Week 33)
The last four weeks have passed so quickly, and just as I was finally starting to recover from the effects of the RED DEVIL, treatment recommenced. April was a month designated to recovery and a time for Dr. Laura Freedman to plan my next treatment phase. Wanting to place Cancer-land firmly behind me, I have been counting down the days to start radiation therapy. I had been told by countless people that radiation is straight forward and easy, does not hurt at all and that I may feel a bit tired towards the end of my sessions - as it is accumulative. I did however get a few sobering warnings from my medical team that I should not underestimate the treatment. I intend to take their warnings seriously and take the time I need to recover from my daily treatments. I was however thrilled to finally get the process underway on Tuesday, April 13.
The first step in radiation therapy is the simulation appointment, which is a preparation appointment. Radiation is so involved; detailed planning is imperative to ensure a very targeted delivery of my next round of treatment. Chemotherapy treats the entire body, but radiation targets a specific location, which is determined by the radiation oncologist during the simulation appointment. During this appointment, the medical team works to create an immobilizer that will position the body in the same position every time I receive treatment. At UM Sylvester they use a blue cushion like material, which they molded around my right arm by extracting the air out of the material. Once this mold was produced, computerized tomography (CT) images are taken. To indicate where the radiation is to be aimed, a combination of laser lights and sharpie marks are placed on the body. Once the tech is certain the body is positioned accurately, they mark the body with permanent tattoos. They look just like a freckle, but these tattoos to my left and right sides, and the one at the top of my chest, allow the laser to line up exactly with these permanent markers to ensure accuracy when placing me on the machine every day. The appointment was about 1.5 hours long, totally painless, and created a tremendous amount of data for my radiation oncologist to start her planning of my treatment.
The machine they use at UM Sylvester is a TrueBeam radiotherapy system. It is enormous; every machine (CT, MRI and GAMMA) that I have been treated in is dwarfed by this monster. It does however provide image-guided stereotactic radiotherapy with high precision, which is exactly what you want when you are being treated with radiation.
Going into my radiation regime I was expecting a maximum of 30 treatments, which would be delivered everyday Monday to Friday, across six weeks. On April 27, just as I was getting ready for the "When the Stars Align" gala, my radiation oncologist called me to discuss extending my treatment plan to 30 regular sessions and six sessions with a boost. There may also be an addition of four more treatments, but that is a decision that she will make as treatment progresses. As I stated, I wanted to be directed to the Cancer-land exit quickly, not have my exit delayed by additional treatment - but she explained that my margins were positive after surgery and we all want the best possible chance of recovery. So, 36 treatments it is.
For those of you wondering what a "positive margin" means, you will all remember my blog recounting my surgery. Edward Scissorhands (my surgical genius Dr. Avisar) removed the diseased tissue and lymph. Well, a negative margin is when they remove the tissue during the mastectomy. If there is a minimum one millimeter rim of healthy tissue around the cancer, they consider that a negative margin. If there is less, it’s a close margin; if the tissue removed has cancer cells to the outer edge and beyond, that is considered a positive margin. Mine was positive and Dr. Avisar could not remove any more tissue, which is why the radiation is so important. During this call, Dr. Laura Freedman also cleared me to start radiation which commenced on Thursday April 29, 2021 - which also happened to be the day I was scheduled to do an interview for Boca Magazine, with Olivia Hollaus and Dr. Rodriguez (a talented Oncologist from UM Sylvester for ReseacHERS). Watch it here!
Arriving for treatment for the first time is always daunting, but waiting for me as I entered the building was one of my chemotherapy nurses Tenesha, ready with a smile and a huge hug. I do not know what I did to deserve the love and support I receive from the medical team at UM Sylvester, but it gives me so much encouragement and strength. She walked me down to the radiation ward and chatted with me, which kept my mind off the worry. Once I was handed over to the radiation team, they took me to the control center to talk me through where they would be during my treatment, what they would be looking at, and how we would be communicating during my treatment. Once I had asked the myriad of questions I normally ask, I was taken into the treatment room.
My mold was ready and waiting. I removed all items of clothing above the waist and lay on the bed with my arms above my head. I asked the nurses to take a quick video of the machine in action before we started to give you all a visual. The strategically draped fabric was obviously removed prior to treatment. Initially, the nurses took some images to make sure I was positioned perfectly before treatment starts. I was required to take deep breaths and hold it while the radiation was administered. Radiation can be used to treat cancer close to the surface (like skin cancer or deeper cancer like lung cancer). Breast cancer is higher-up in the body, so the nurses cover the chest in a sticky material with properties equivalent to tissue. This material is called a bolus and it attracts the radiation back up to the chest tissue. Treatment was painless and quick.
I completed treatment eight today and we have the schedule posted on the wall in the office; Allison marks every day off with a big X. It is very motivating to see the treatments already behind me!
To date my skin is tolerating the radiation well. The best way for me to describe the effects are like a bad sunburn; the skin is tight and red and there is warmth radiating, but I am personally not having pain. I certainly feel fatigue after treatment, but generally I am well and hopeful for a painless and easy round three.
Treatment for cancer is based on “Slash, poison and burn.” In my case, remove the breasts; poison the body with chemotherapy, and burn the tissue with radiation. Cancer research efforts are currently substantially misdirected. I recently read an article about cancer treatment; the professor stated, "we should admit that we have not made meaningful progress in treating cancer, and that our research is too directed to the end of the cancer cycle (namely a couple of months improvement in life expectancy for those with cancer) and in fact should be focused on the first cell.”
As you all know my goal through the creation of The Pink Fight Club was to communicate my updates, raise awareness, and raise funds for research and cures. Being an Ambassador for ResearcHERS is an honor and recently the American Cancer Society, my fellow ResearcHERS Ambassadors and myself hosted the When the Stars Align Gala. For 11 consecutive years the Addison has been awarded the prestigious Five Star Diamond Award. Ordinarily, to celebrate this prestigious award, we host a dinner and invite our community to join in the celebration. This year, the Addison team decided that the event should be used to raise needed funds for American Cancer Society and ResearcHERS.
My fellow Ambassadors, each one a determined caring woman and leaders in their field of business, collaborated to not only sell every ticket but to generate well needed funds for research. It was such a magical evening with perfect weather company and intentions. Benny from Daniel Events created and donated décor that transported every attendee to a night sky filled with stars and planets. The universe even provided us with a full pink moon! Entertainment was provided by Gareth Johnson a talented violinist, Festival of Arts Boca, Kendra Erika and her original Song of Hope and Brian and Lenny of Custom DJ Services. Every guest was given a swag bag donated by BAWA medical. Chef Patrick Duffy and his team created a five-course culinary delight which was paired with wines all donated by incredible wineries. We were even lucky enough to have Mathias Kiwanuka creator and owner of Wandering Wines present for the evening.
We helped the region raise over $100,000 because of generous donations, stars sold honoring a cancer warrior, and a custom piece of jewelry created by Katia Designs with a daily reminder to be the light. I honored my beloved friends and largest donors to date Harry and Amy Seidman with a stunning award that Emma Cinque President of the American Academy of Hospitality Sciences and Karalynn Dixon donated. The evening and generosity of all present was so meaningful and I will never have enough words of gratitude to every single person who has donated to get me to my personal fundraising goal of $50,000.
Munoz Photography once again captured the night perfectly and Chad from Timeline Video produced his signature magic by producing the recap video for all to enjoy.
Cancer-land is a dark and scary place filled with uncertainty and fear but every now and again a ray of sunshine reminds you that there is life on the other side of slash, poison, and burn. Just this week fine blonde hairs started to appear on my legs and head and to my absolute delight just last night tiny eyelashes are visible. The resurgence of life is evident, and I am reminded that hope and light is everywhere around me. I intend to grab hold of this hope and light and to fight harder than I have ever fought before because the light at the end of this dark tunnel is finally visible.
To learn more about and support life-saving cancer research visit Zoe's ResearcHERS ambassador page, visit http://main.acsevents.org/goto/ZoeLanham