Radiation is the sneakiest of all the cancer treatments I go through.
I meet with the friendly, smiling radiation doc. It's hard to see her as a doctor--she looks like a P.E. teacher. With her pixie cut and glowing skin, she talks about beams of radiation, percentages of tissue damage versus effectiveness of the treatment and decreases in the likelihood of cancer recurrence.
With my Stage Two situation and family history of breast cancer, she explains, she would like to treat this "aggressively." I agree, so she schedules me for my radiation run-through and tattooing.
This is where I begin to realize how sneaky this part of my treatment is. I'm at a hospital and we're talking about a tattooing sesh? What kind of tattoo? Is it just expected that I'll want one of those pink, breast cancer ribbons? Or, maybe, since they know about my wine career, they'll put a wine bottle or corkscrew on my chest.
I decide a tattoo is just what I need to remind myself I'm still youngish. I tell my kids that I'm getting a tattoo. Two are curious; one is mortified.
For my radiation run through, I am shown into a room with a large machine in the middle. The hospital gown is pulled to my waist and I am told to lie down on a squishy cushion that will mold to my body. My right arm is put up above my head, with my arm cocked, kind of like I'm midway through a tennis serve.
"Turn your head as far left as you can, please, and now don't move," the radiation technician directs. We wait for the body mold to harden beneath me. I try to take a nap.
While I'm dozing, the doctor decides that my newly expanded, five-pancake-high left breast is in the way of the radiation beam that needs to hit my right breast (see "Wine to Pair with a Bigger Bust, Part 3) so a phone call is made. Jill, the plastics nurse, arrives with her cartoon syringe.
I open my eyes to see her on the left side of the table with her big smile.
"So sorry to have to do this," she announces and pulls out her magnet to find the port in the expander under my skin. She sticks in the needle and begins to pull liquid OUT of my left expander/breast as she explains, "We just need to make this one a little smaller. Don't worry," she whispers, "we have inserts for your bra."
Now they've got me padding my bra. Very sneaky.
Finally, the tattoo artist shows up. She looks remarkably like a regular medical person--not a big, biker guy in a leather vest. She holds a small needle. She gives me three small pricks of ink around my right breast, saying, "These help us perfectly position you every day so the radiation goes to exactly the right places."
Not a breast cancer ribbon or a corkscrew.... three tattooed freckles. My kids won't be impressed.
I begin my six-weeks of radiation.
You get radiated every day so you come to know your technicians like friends. A week into my treatment is Halloween, so I use a Sharpie and dress my right breast up as a Jack-o-Lantern. My team loves it.
For the first couple weeks of treatments, nothing seems to be happening. I think maybe I won't go through all the burns that everyone talks about.
Radiation is sneaky like that. You appear to be unaffected... until your skin is burned, like you were out at the beach for six hours and your sunscreen stopped working at hour three.
Then you're having a conversation with your doctor about how you must be allergic to the body mold you lay in each day, because your back is becoming itchy.
"No, that's not an allergy," the doctor tells you as she examines you. "That's where the radiation is burning your back. The beams go all the way through you; they don't just stop on your front side."
And there is no wine more sneaky than Prosecco grown in Northern Italy, close to the Alps.
People have made wine in this area of the world almost 2,000 years, way before they really knew what they were doing. Back then, before fermentation was understood - the action of yeast eating sugar in the fruit juice causing the byproducts of alcohol and carbon dioxide - the winemakers produced wine that one time was still and the next would be bubbly. Very sneaky.
And even sneakier... the Italians discovered they could drink Prosecco during the day at lunch and not get trashed. This was because it had a lower alcohol content (10-11%) than most table wines (12-14%). It was only available for them to drink at their farms. No one else in the world was supposed to know about it, or really care.
It was a perfect mid-day solution... tasty, sparkling, and refreshing, yet something that wouldn't require a nap before handling farm equipment all afternoon.
The Italians kept it mostly a secret from the rest of the world until the early 1900s. Since then, its popularity has grown and grown. In the early 2000s, stores could hardly keep it on the shelves.
It is made from a grape that is called Glera. And although it used to be made in a sweet or slightly sweet style, most Prosecco that we see here in the United States these days is a drier style called brut.
The wine offers light bubbles and apple or pear aromas with a fresh-pressed taste that makes it the quintessential drink on a summer deck, with or without food.
As for pairing with radiation, it stands out as the perfect wine.
Not to drink.
To fill a bathtub. I picture my skin hissing as I lower myself into the tub of cool bubbles. As a bonus, the lower alcohol won't dry my skin out like a normal wine would.
And perhaps I'll pour myself a small glass to sip while I'm soaking.
Only the Italian farmers and I will know. Sneaky, sneaky...
Because I am a sommelier, I naturally pair life situations with wine. In no way does my pairing wine with my breast cancer journey mean that you should use wine in any way other than moderately. And if you are at risk of getting cancer or have had cancer, you should talk to your doctor to discuss whether you should be drinking any alcohol at all. After my own education about the connection between alcohol and cancer, I guarantee you that I am limiting my consumption.