7 Tips to Share From the Cancer Closet

Posted by: Shel Harrington 19 September, 2013 26 Comments

cancer ribbon starNow that I’m out of the ‘cancer closet,’ I’d like to share some of the tips I picked up from the experience. None of this process is fun, but it can be less difficult.

1. Get the deodorant before it’s necessary. The day before radiation treatments started one casually mentioned to me that most deodorants contain metal and could irritate the skin during this process. An exception was a brand called “Tom’s” that might be found at Walmart. You’re just now telling me this? (To be fair, it may have been stated somewhere in the bubblegum-pink Texas-sized tote bag they gave me full of pamphlets, but by the time I received that I was so sick of reading about cancer I shoved it behind a couch to dim its pink glow). I finally found Tom’s. It was reminiscent of citronella. Good – I’d smell better while not having to worry about armpit mosquito bites. Find organic options ahead of time and have one on hand.

2. Weird changes are normal. I expected things to look and feel different once radiation started, but wait – there’s more! If, like me, you have a sense of smell so acute you can detect a potato rotting a week before the skin is marred, you may notice an enhanced aroma from the radiated site in a: “What the . . . is that me?” sort of way. Yes, it is. Pass the citronella please.

3. “Breast cancer is not an emergency.” So says Deborah Capok, M.D., surgical oncologist at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. After I was diagnosed, some were shocked that I took weeks to make a decision about the type of surgery and treatment I wanted to pursue (more on that unpleasant bit Monday). I was heartened to see an article wherein Dr. Capok advocated taking the necessary time to gather information and look into all treatment options.

4. Find out your ointment options before the burn. Prior to starting radiation, a Cherokee woman relayed to me that she successfully minimized the burns by using milk from the aloe plant as soon as treatment began. She said one could use aloe gel (found at health stores) as an alternative. So I stocked up on aloe gel and used it liberally from the first day on. I was told repeatedly by radiology staffers that my skin looked good at different stages – not as bad as many they had seen with the same amount of treatments. As the skin got a more vibrant pink (that blasted color is everywhere) the doctor said it was time to talk about lotion options. I told her about my aloe gel regimen and she was fine with me continuing with it because it was working well for me. I asked why this subject wasn’t discussed early on so one can take a preventative approach. She said: “Most women use a topical cream daily in those areas so it’s not necessary to discuss it until there’s a problem.” Oh. Either I’m not like ‘most women’ or she’s mistaken. I’m going with the former explanation, because to prove her wrong I’d have to ask ‘most women’ a question I have no intention of asking. gel

5. Protect what’s vulnerable. Areas of skin in ‘folds’ are more susceptible to intense burn reactions. A staff member made a suggestion that worked for me. Put a soft rolled-up tank top (or other small fabric item) under the breast and under the arm when sitting around the house. I’m not talking armpit here – I’m talking about that baby-soft place on your side (between armpit and ribs) that only sees the sun if you’re a beach volleyball player. The point is to keep skin-to-skin friction at a minimum. Because it’s harder to secure something under the arm, I didn’t buffer that location as much and paid the friction price!

6. Keep it moving. As the skin burns, it shrinks and tightens (remember that nasty sunburn you once had?). If you don’t push through a little discomfort to stretch the skin, you are setting yourself up for a painful event. I asked the doctor if swimming was okay and she said that was a great choice – anything that kept that arm and skin moving on a regular basis. She added that I shouldn’t overdo it by lifting weights. Whew! I could now justify deleting “joining the gym” from my yet-to-be-done 2013 New Year’s Resolution List – doctor’s orders!

7. Contribute to a pleasant environment. You already know that having a positive attitude will serve you well in difficult times. There are things you can do to make the experience as positive as possible. As one dear friend says: “Less bad is good.”

  • Don’t just go through your paces – interact with your treatment team. These are very interesting people – not to mention they have great tips to share.

    Nicole, Jessica, Lacey, Paul and Patricia made things easier with their pleasantness and helpful tips
    Nicole, Jessica, Lacey, Paul and Patricia made things easier with their pleasantness and helpful tips
  • For my own entertainment, I named the radiation machine so I could say things like: “I’m headed out to see Yve – be back in an hour” and “Man, Yve sure took her good sweet time today.” I took pictures of me and Yve. (The last one is me waving goodby. Well, not ‘waving’ exactly – but gesturing goodbye in a way that indicated I wouldn’t miss her.)

    Yve and me during one of our numerous debates about her treatment techniques
    Yve and me during one of our numerous debates about her treatment techniques
  • Bring your own music for your treatments or that stressful MRI. Maybe the theme from Rocky, or a peaceful instrumental. Not only can you create your own mood, it helps avoid Pandora’s insensitive selections such as Another One Bites the Dust and Knock, Knock, Knocking on Heaven’s Door. (Yes, those are real examples.)

I’m shooting for Monday to wrap up this impromptu mini-series on cancer with my promised list of what to say, and what NOT to say when someone tells you they have cancer.

Well, above are a few things that helped me. If you have tips or suggestions, please share them with us in the comment section below.

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26 Comments

  • Shoshana Wasserman

    Love, Love, Love your wit and sense of sarcasm! Major bonus if you have this as you go through all the doctors appointments and treatments. Making friends with the treatment team is one of the best pieces of advise because you are going to be with these folks a lot! You made me remember so many of the things I had already forgotten. Deodorant and ointment situation happened to me exactly the same way. Thank you for sharing!

    • Shel Harrington

      Sarcasm? Moi?? Maybe just a touch! I’m still not sure that my doctor ‘bought into’ the benefits of aloe gel versus the creams that kept getting mentioned, but I’m going to keep putting it out there! It was an option I never would have been aware of if another prior patient hadn’t told me – it was not mentioned by any doctor or in anything I read. Thanks for checking this out, Shoshana and for the ideas of where to share further.

  • Shel, great post and really good blog. That last one about the music . . . good grief.

  • Nicole (Radiation Therapist)

    We think of you often & hope you are doing well! We should have taken a picture with you! Sorry about insensitive pandora…We got it right after a few weeks in!lol We enjoy reading your blogs on our down time. You’re so brave to share your journey with the world. You have some good advice as well. Keep them coming!! 🙂

    • Shel Harrington

      Nicole! I’m delighted to hear from you! I wondered if you and the crew would see the picture and know how much I appreciated each of you – so glad to know you did! In spite of the fact that Yve roughed me up a bit, I am doing very well, thank you. I hope to see you Lacey and Jessica again – but in a different environment! Meanwhile, thanks for reading and I hope you’ll continue to give input. (If, by any chance, someone from there emailed me in the last day or so from this cite, the link didn’t connect and I would love it if the note was re-sent to shelharrington@gmail.com )

  • Great information, Shel. And I so admire how you took your time to gather intel in order to make informed decisions. Very inspiring!

    • Shel Harrington

      Thanks, Sonia. My next challenge? Writing a book – I hear that takes serious perseverance, too – as you have endured so well!

  • “It’s not necessary to discuss it until there’s a problem.”–Unfortunately, that seems to be the medical community’s attitude about a lot of things. I don’t blame individual doctors and nurses for this. Most of them are doing the best they can in a broken, overburdened system. But it’s still tough for us patients when we don’t get the information we need. As for applying daily topical creams… maybe I’ve been living in a cave, but I’ve never heard of anyone doing this.

    • Shel Harrington

      I agree that’s such a frustrating position. And you’re right – it’s not all doctors and nurses. Most of the staff I dealt with were very interactive and full of tips to prevent common problems. There seemed to be a slight disconnect with the two radiologist doctors I dealt with – they didn’t seem to be ‘people persons’ and kind of kept there distance. I don’t have a wider frame of reference to know if that was a fluke or if that is typical with that type of doctor since their contact with patients isn’t as intimate as one has with the oncologist and surgeon. As to ‘topical creams’ I think she simply meant ‘moisturizer’ and couldn’t break from her stilted doctor-talk. Such an educational experience! Have a great weekend, Maria!

  • Christy Matthews

    Tough stuff you’ve been dealing with and now sharing in your humorous way… You’re amazing!

    • Shel Harrington

      So are you, Christy – thanks for being there for me and assisting me in dealing with things in my own time frame. You’re a treasure.

  • I too am not “most women.” What the heck? You’re doing a great thing here, Shel. We all need humor in our lives, especially when we’re dealing with a health issue.

  • Gina Kishur

    Shel, you are the BEST! This is wonderful information to have, and so funny.

  • Angela

    Wow Shel. Awesome of your to be so willing to share. And Cool of you to tell it so creatively.

  • Brenda Reardon

    Excellent writing, Shel! A positive attitude is a MUST!!

    • Shel Harrington

      I so agree, Brenda! My mother is a retired nurse who worked many years in geriatrics and hospice after that – we heard first-hand accounts of the tremendous difference it made in longevity and quality of life. Not to mention my own parents at 87 and 89 are shining examples. Their ‘policy’ is to give a few minutes each day to complain/talk about what hurts and then enough – they get on with their day.I wish they didn’t live so far away!

  • Ginny Francis

    Great tips Shel for those who have to have radiation.My mom had a full mastectomy and 6 lymph nodes removed 11 years ago and there was concern about lymphodema, so she massages her arm and breast every night. The doctors told her that light rubbing was the best thing she could do to help keep her “juices” flowing! Your last tip may be the best one for long lasting well being. Mom used to say she was NOT going to spend every waking minute talking about cancer. It sounds like you have a wonderful attitude….I hear that awesome Abreu humor in all your comments. Keep up the GREAT work!!♥

    • Shel Harrington

      Good info to have. My understanding of that unpleasant condition is that it can take months, sometimes years, to show itself after lymph damage – glad you’re mom is proactive about it and sharing that information. I hope she is doing well, Ginny.

      “Abreu humor” is a condition we haven’t found a cure for yet – some unappreciative types are still looking!

  • Kurtis

    Shel- you have taken a very serious topic and communicated crucial information that most people have never heard…and you are quite funny too!!!

  • Seriously, you are the only person I know who can make this topic F-U-N-N-Y. I am still laughing — but ALL is great information!

    • Shel Harrington

      Glad I could give you a chuckle – it’s the least I could do after you started my day out laughing with that hilarious Ellen DeGeneres video you posted!

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