Nora Carlson is fortunate. She will tell you so herself, over and over. She is fortunate that her cancer was caught between stage zero and one. She is fortunate because of the talented team of doctors she handpicked. She is fortunate for the support she found in her community. And she is fortunate that she can recall her journey with breast cancer without bitterness or grief.
Thanks to a routine mammogram and a diligent team at her hospital in Washington State, it was discovered after examining several films that Nora had calcifications on her chest wall. A lumpectomy, performed by a surgeon at a nearby hospital, resulted in the successful removal of her tumor. Nora’s doctors recommended radiation therapy to treat any cancerous cells that potentially remained in the breast.
According to Nora, her doctor and the radiation oncology team made every effort to make Nora as comfortable as possible and her experience in treatment was a pleasant one. The treatment room ceilings were painted to look like the sky at sunset, with tiny pinholes through which lights shine like twinkling stars; so when Nora reclined on the treatment couch, she had a lovely view of the “sky” at twilight. She was given warm blankets to put over her lower body if she was cold, and a pillow under her knees. To express her appreciation, Nora burned compilation CDs so that the radiation oncology department would have a library of calming music to play in the treatment room, her little gift to all the patients that were to follow her.
Nora’s cancer was on the left side – the same side as her heart – which meant it was critical that the radiation treatment be planned to minimize exposure to the heart and lungs. To that end, a small, wireless cube was placed on her torso to monitor her breathing and broadcast the position of her chest wall to the computer. Nora was taught to use devices that helped monitor her breathing and expand the distance between her heart and tumor. This is called respiratory gating using a breath-hold technique.
When Nora brought a friend with her to a radiotherapy session, her therapists offered to show her friend the machine on which Nora was being treated. They explained to her what happened inside the treatment room, and outside in the control room. Nora said, “They wanted to demystify it all, because they figured these people are going to tell other people, who will tell other people, and help keep it from being a frightening experience.”
Nora fully immersed herself in her treatment and healing, and even took a series of classes, some relating to cancer, and others not. One class in particular was called “Gratitude Journaling.” It was in this class that Nora started to keep a thorough journal of her journey with breast cancer. “It’s a way to remember. I don’t want to forget this. I don’t want to bury it.” She would write poems, jot down quotes, and also include inspiring photos. She also took and included photos of her radiation team, and they, too, wrote notes in her journal, wishing her a healthy recovery and well wishes. They became her extended family, especially after finding out that Nora’s partner was unable to be with her for most of her treatments. As it turned out, Nora’s partner Lora had to spend most of her time with her family; her father was also facing cancer. So it was the norm for Nora to go to radiotherapy by herself, drive a few hours to be with Lora and her family, and then drive back for her treatment session the following day. Though traveling was tiring at times, Nora stayed positive, and was very active while she was undergoing radiation.
Nora did experience mild side effects from her treatment, including skin irritation and burning. “I drank a lot of water. And I walked, and I just tried to keep life as normal as possible.”
Nora finished radiotherapy on January 20, 2010. She follows up with her medical oncologist every three months to do blood-work and other follow-up tests. Every 6 months she has a mammogram on her left breast, and every year for the right breast. She continues to occasionally visit her radiation oncology team to bring them flowers, and thinks that someday, she might even work there. “I feel like my role is not as a cancer ‘survivor’; that word does not resonate to me. I feel like a cancer thriver.”
Varian would like to thank Evergreen Hospital in Kirkland, WA for their help and their invaluable assistance in the preparation of this story.