When I first found out that I would need either a full or partial mastectomy (also called a lumpectomy), I went online. And this is my advice if you have breast cancer (or even if you don't) - NEVER, EVER search Google images for the phrases "mastectomy scars" and/or "breast reconstruction." Yikes! After seeing women's chests displaying giant red slash scars with no nipples, I became terrified. My surgeon, however, was amazing, and it ended up that my partial mastectomy went very well, and my breast looks very similar to how it looked before.
Six weeks later, when it came time to begin radiation therapy, I turned to Google images once again. I know, I know. But it turns out that I could only find one picture of a radiation burn on someone being treated for breast cancer. I'm not sure why that is, maybe people are just shy because the side effects from radiation aren't that pretty, but I'm a person that thinks it's helpful to see the worst so that I can prepare for it.
A few years ago, my friend went through radiation treatment and I saw his burns. His neck ended up looking bright red, something akin to a severe sunburn. But his situation and mine were different. I was told before treatment that places where the skin folds or stretches regularly are more prone to blistering and skin breaks. Also, having to wear a bra over irritated skin can cause pain.
In any case, I was curious, so I've decided to post a few pictures showing my skin while it was peeling and at its peak burn period. It's kind of gross, but it's not as horrific as I once thought it might be. Also, I wanted to show that it was manageable because of my frequent moisturizing and pleading with it. Each day for the last couple weeks, I'd apply my radiation cream and say aloud, "Please don't bleed. Please don't bleed. PLEASE don't bleed."
The first side effect that really threw me was the peeling. It doesn't peel like a sunburn; instead, the skin comes off all at once. One evening three weeks into treatment, I was rubbing moisturizer onto my chest, and when I pulled my fingers away I had a white paste of skin all over my hand. It shed copious amounts of white flakes over me and the shirt I was wearing. It was definitely scary. But it only happened a few times and didn't hurt. The burns, however, eventually did hurt and, also, in a different way than a typical sunburn. The skin on my side under my arm was the worst and that is displayed in the third picture. I once described my pain as "my side feels like it was hit with a blowtorch, the fold under my breast feels like it's covered in poison ivy, and my nipple feels like I put it in a pencil sharpener." That was only accurate for a short time, though. Also, the red in the pictures doesn't really do justice to the hot pink to bright red to dark brown colors of my changing skin. It was definitely a boob of a different color. Each day, I woke up to an altered, yet equally vivid hue. One side of me looked perfectly normal and the other bizarre. You've heard of the Batman villain Two-Face, right? Well, I was Two-Boob, his radioactive sister.
The superficial side effects end up going away slowly as the skin renews; two weeks after treatment, I still have a tan and my skin is peeling. The harder side effect is the internal pain, which may stay for a little longer or be permanent. That feels like occasional rolling shock waves through my chest, but that's manageable as well. It's chronic but not constant. My only permanent external scars will be my three little freckle-like tattoos: one in the middle of my chest and one on each side of my body (shown in the last picture). And I'm actually kind of fond of them.