Friday, March 15, 2013
Okay, not real tattoos—but they do use them for radiation therapy in some cases: tiny freckles are tattooed onto your skin with a long, thin needle to mark the area to be radiated and guide the technicians in placing you on the table so that the radiation beams goes where they’re supposed to go. My “tattoos” were made with a marking pen, each covered with a round, clear Band-Aid to keep them from getting rubbed or washed away. And they’re not tiny freckles but substantial X’s. That particular part of my body looks rather like it’s been attacked by a toddler let loose with a black Magic Marker.
Radiation is every weekday at 3 p.m. I enter the parking lot reserved for radiation patients, check in with the nice lady in the parking hut, park—and walk past the line of emergency vehicles outside the ER, some with rescue dogs, waiting for their next call. Past the hospital entrance, where there are often patients in wheelchairs sitting just inside the glass doors and I wonder if they are waiting for someone or if they desperately needed a hit of the world in which they weren’t sick and hope, in time, to reenter.
There are more sick people in the radiation waiting room, some with an entourage of family members. Some, like me, are wearing hats or scarves or baseball caps to cover up their bald heads. Others look perfectly fine, just…grim. They don’t talk much, though once I heard a man say to his wife, “Well, we need to get it taken care of by turkey season. It’s coming right up, you know.” Yesterday, there was a woman chomping and smacking her gum, talking loudly on her cellphone, oblivious to everyone around her. “I’m at the hospital. I said, I’ll pick it up on my way my home.”
Fortunately, there’s not usually much of a wait before one of a number of very friendly technicians comes to get me and we wind through the gleaming corridors toward the radiation room. Invariably, there’s an exchange about the weather on the way.
“What’s it doing out there?”
B. It’s actually nice out! It’s so great to see the sun!
C. Ugly big dark clouds coming in from the west.
D. No sign of that snow yet.
E. Do you think spring will ever come?
F. Man, weather forecasting has to be the greatest job ever: they pay you to get it wrong.
It’s cold in the radiation room. The walls are dingy gray-white; the floor, institutional green. Shelves along one wall are lined with the molded pillows and pallets of patients currently undergoing treatment. The gray radiation machine sits on the far end of the room; a bed-shaped table, covered with a white sheet, my own pillow placed at the top.
There’s a small curtained dressing area and, there, I remove the clothing from the top part of my body and drape it with a towel. Then I lie on the table, position my head correctly on the pillow, raise my arms above my head, elbows bent, hands touching. The technicians position my body, tugging at the sheet beneath me to line up my “tattoos” with the red laser beams that emerge from the walls on either side of where I lie. When I’m perfectly positioned, they raise the table, then leave, closing the thick, heavy door behind them.
The motor starts; the huge disc at the top of the machine lowers, twists, and settles with the flat part facing my left side. My head is turned to the left on my pillow, and what I see looks like a small television screen with the shape my right breast reflected hazily in the glass. A closer look reveals that the screen is filled with narrow gray bars placed very close together. There’s a buzzing sound and they split horizontally, some moving down, some up to create the black space through which the radiation beams will come. With a second buzzing sound, the top bars begin to move down at different speeds until they meet the row of bars at the bottom. Then the bars reposition themselves and the buzzing occurs again as the machine delivers the second shot. It doesn’t hurt; in fact, I feel nothing at all.
Now the disc rises, pivots above me, and repositions itself on my right side to blast the area from which the lymph nodes were taken. Same thing: buzzing, two hits. I can’t see the screen this time because of my head placement, but now I can see the video monitor with my chart on it: my name and rows of numbers. As the machine does its job, the rows are highlighted orange, one-by-one.
It’s over in fewer than five minutes. The technicians return, lower the table.
I dress, we say, “Have a great evening/weekend/whatever,” and I head back out into the world.
Before starting my treatment, I talked to numerous people who’d gone through radiation therapy themselves. Those who experienced it ten years ago or more said it was like having a horrible sunburn for weeks; plus, it absolutely exhausted them. “I felt like I was walking in deep water all the time,” one friend said. Those with more recent experiences said that radiation had had little effect on them at all. One person said it energized her. “My house was never as clean as it was when I was undergoing radiation,” she told me. Wow, I thought. That would be nice. But it seemed way too much to hope for.
I’m more than halfway through my course of radiation now. I was right: “energized” was too much to hope for. But I feel fine, maybe a little tired—though nothing that a good nap can’t remedy. I’ve had none of the unpleasant “sunburn” effects that some radiation patients experience. (Maybe because of the green tea that my doctor instructed me to spritz on the radiation area four times daily—interesting, I think in light of how herbs and other natural substances were used to treat cancer before we had “real” drugs. Though I also apply a steroid cream every day.)
Plan for the worst, hope for the best. That’s my motto in dicey situations of all types, and it’s always served me well. Sometimes, though, the worst turns out to be something you didn’t imagine—and how can you plan for that? What I hadn’t imagined, hadn’t prepared for was that going to the hospital for radiation treatments five days a week for four and half weeks would remind me that I have cancer for at least an hour every single day. Which, I’ve got to say, is a little depressing.
I know. If this is the worst thing that’s happened to me throughout this whole ordeal I can hardly complain. And I’m not complaining. Just saying: radiation has had an effect on me that chemo, which I knew enough to be able prepare myself for, didn’t have.
Just seven more sessions after the one today.
By then, please let it be spring.