Adventures in Radiation: Gamma Knife Surgery

You guys, it’s Mets Monday again! I promised you a description of how my gamma knife surgery went, and today I will deliver on that promise, complete with pictures! If you’re squeamish about people having screws drilled into their skull, you should skip this post.

We arrived at the gamma knife clinic at 6:30AM, which is a brutally early hour of the morning, especially when one isn’t allowed to eat or drink before the procedure starts. And yet I managed to be perky, because that’s how I roll. I mean, being a grouchy jerk when you’re having horribly crazy tortuous things done to your body is perfectly understandable. But when you put on a smile and ask the nurses how their weekend was, I mean, that positive energy sent out into the world has to be a good thing, right? Besides, it’s not the staff’s fault that I’ve got cancer, so why take it out on them?

So. There I am, at the clinic, in the wee hours of the morning, being perky despite a drastic lack of caffeine. This is me hanging out waiting for the show to get started.

Yeah, that’s my t-shirt that says My Oncologist Is My Homeboy. Because he is. 

Next, it was vitals and IV time, and of course, my very favorite thing, Ativan. Ativan works for nausea AND anxiety. Good stuff. See how calm and mildly stoned I look? 

Then came the screwing in the skull part. So, the way gamma knife works is, it’s a very very targeted form of radiation. So, it’s super important that they’re zapping the right spot, so they hit the tumor and not someplace else. Which is why they screw a metal frame to your head, and lock your frame onto the machine. The screws only go in a couple of millimeters, but I mean, they’re drilling in your skull. So they dope you up with fentanyl, and also inject stuff where the screws will go to make it so you aren’t in pain from the screwing. 

So there I am, with screws in my head and this big ass frame on my face. You can see how where they injected the numbing stuff, I’ve got like giant blobby swelling? Yeah, that’s normal for this procedure.  I joked and laughed through this process, and the nurse said it’s the first time she’s seen anyone do that. She kept saying what an easy patient I am. See? Perky.

Next they wheeled me upstairs for an MRI of my brain, to see if anything new had popped up, and to get a very very precise picture of the lesions in there. And THEN I was finally allowed to eat. And drink coffee. The Hubs (who was there for the whole procedure and took these photos–thanks Hubs!) brought me what you all probably know is one of my favorite foods: bacon.

He also brought me a mocha. I was so happy. 

Then we hung out for a bit–a lot of cancer treatment involves hanging out and waiting–and then it was zapping time! The machine looked a lot like a CT machine, and once I was wheeled in there, and my metal frame locked in place, they put on whatever music I wanted. I have a playlist that sounds like a cocktail party in 1963, and that’s what I chose to listen to. Except, I think maybe 5 minutes into the procedure, I fell asleep in the machine, which is apparently very common. I mean, they’ve doped you up on Ativan and given you fentanyl and whatever. Of course you’re going to fall asleep.

My zapping took about 75 minutes, 15 minutes for each spot. So, there were 3 spots in my brain that they were fairly certain were cancer, and then there were 2 spots (one of which was new on the day-of MRI) that were so tiny, they weren’t sure if they were cancer or not. But to be on the safe side, they zapped all 5. 

Then came the unscrewing. They held gauze on each hole to stop the bleeding, and then I took this selfie.

About five minutes after this, I’m laying there waiting to get ready for discharge, when I realize that I have blood gushing out of one of the screw holes in the back of my head. There was a lot of it, and the doctor came in and did the gauze thing again to get it to stop. While she was holding the gauze to my head, we started chatting and realized that we went to the same middle school–she was in 6th grade when I was in 8th grade. Seattle is truly the smallest town in the world.

And then, with the bleeding stopped and my vitals good, off home I went. We were home by 2PM, and one of the first things I did when we got home was make The Hubs pull out my middle school yearbook, so I could look up the picture of the gamma knife doctor, take a picture of it, and send it to my oncologist, along with a picture of my picture from that yearbook. Because I’m an asshole. I won’t share the nice gamma knife doctor’s picture here, because I’m not THAT big of an asshole, but here’s me in 8th grade. Aren’t those earrings epic?

Everything was going fine with recovery–I was a bit more tired than  usual, but not too bad–until my face started swelling up. Which is also a normal thing, as the drugs they injected in your skull start to drain. I looked like this.

WTF. Was I in a bar fight? Was I attacked by bees? The most annoying part was that it was hard to see out of that eye that’s almost swollen shut. Luckily, within a couple days it was better and I was back to looking like me again. I feel like with radiation, it’s a relatively simple procedure, like, this was one day and you’re done, unlike chemo that goes on for months, and it’s not like you’re puking after. But then, your face swells up like a balloon, or with regular radiation, you’ve got a weird shaped suntan that never goes away. Which is why radiation isn’t my favorite thing. I feel like it’s psychologically harder than chemo.

So, that’s gamma knife. This is the reality of metastatic breast cancer. It’s bizarre treatments and blood gushing out of a hole in the back of your skull, and even with all of this crap, it’s still incurable. I’m doing all this to buy myself time, but I’m still going to die with or of this disease. Today 108 Americans will die of metastatic breast cancer, even after having endured treatments like this. We deserve better. We deserve research that will find us a cure.