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Column

Walking the road not chosen

Editor's note: After failing a mammogram test earlier this spring, Barb Kromphardt entered the world of breast cancer treatment.Following a surgical biopsy, she was diagnosed with DCIS, an early-stage cancer, in her right breast. She is sharing her story with the readers.

It was time for the next phase of my treatment.

No more scalpels or stitches or anesthesia. Just six or seven weeks of daily visits to my local cancer center to blast any lurking cancer cells to kingdom come. Each treatment would only take about five to 10 minutes, so how tough was that? Stretch out for a few minutes and relax, right?

Oh well.

While each treatment would be brief, my first visit would take about an hour. I would be scanned and measured so the doctor could determine the best angles for the radiation, and then the machine would be programmed to deliver the proper treatment every time I came in.

To hold me steady, the technician introduced me to something called a breast board. The device is kind of like a gynecologist’s set of stirrups, except for the arms rather than the legs. I lay flat under the scanning machine and raised my arms above my head. Two sets of padded restraints were on either side of my head, one to control the placement of my upper arms, and the other my forearms. My hands were loosely clasped above my head.

“Now don’t move,” the technician told me.

The room went dim, and the scanning device began to move above me, rotating into one position after another. The technician would dart in occasionally to draw on my breast with a green marker.

Then it was time for my tattoos. Now I am not a particularly cool person, and the tattoo craze has passed me by. But lying on my back in a dim room, I received, not one or two, but five tattoos. There was one on either side, and three vertical ones in the center of my chest. The technician explained the tattoos would guide the radiation machine to treat me precisely the same way each visit.

“This one might hurt a little,” she said as she placed a bluish dot on my sternum.

Lying so still for so long eventually began to hurt. I’ve got a bit of a funny shoulder, and holding my arm in that position for that long was truly uncomfortable. Minding the admonition not to move, I twitched, flinched and wriggled my toes, and even let out the occasional moan.

But the prep work was finally done, and the plan for my treatment was set.

The first day of treatment was intimidating. The technician took me back to the treatment room where the giant machine loomed over my head. Undressing from the waist up, I clutched a little white towel to my chest while they led me to the machine. Oh joy, another breast board!

I lay down and let the technicians arrange my arms over my head. They had me wriggle around, first a little to the left, then a bit to the right while they lined up my tattoos with laser lights glowing from the walls.

Then it was time. The technicians left for the control room, and I lay there alone with my poor, scarred breast pointing skyward, almost numb with apprehension over what was to come.

But as the radiation machine began to rotate over my head, a smile slowly broke out on my face. There, on the ceiling, was a huge picture of a winding path leading through a cherry orchard in full bloom!

During the 35 days of my treatment — which generally lasted less than 10 minutes each day — I came to know that cherry orchard pretty well. I couldn’t always see it as the machine revolved around my body, but it was always there for me sooner or later.

The main side effect from the radiation treatments was a skin irritation. Some women get a little sunburn, but my skin actually turned a little bit raw.

The treatment? A jar of “bag balm,” a cream dairy farmers use on their cattle’s udders when they get a little sore. It was really kind of ironic. While nursing my first child I developed a case of mastitis.

“Just like the cows get on the farm,”said my ever-helpful father.

I think he would have gotten a laugh out of the bag balm.

Barb Kromphardt, currently of Columbus, Ind., was a reporter for the Bureau County Republican and interim managing editor of the Tonica News and the Putnam County Record. She can be reached at bkromps@yahoo.com.

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