Thursday, February 24, 2011

A Radiating Experience

It’s astonishing how much the radiation experience blocked my writing. I have done some work on Sweet Caroline (only because my daughter makes me), but really very little compared to my usual output. And in complete opposition to my need to blog about the IDC, I was suddenly dry. It’s only now, sitting staring out at the Pacific, the waves roaring in the background (or more accurately, foreground), that I suddenly want to write and write. I do need to stay out of the sun a bit more, too, which translates into more time in front of my laptop, but that’s okay when it’s productive.
More about Mexico later, so if you’re not interested in the radiation experience, wait for tomorrow to read!
For those of you who are still with me, I think I can remember all the details of what happened at each session fairly accurately. I spent a lot of the time, as I lay on the narrow hard bed waiting for the machines to do their magic, in contemplation of this blog and how I would describe it to my readers. Luckily, I had lots of people who actually asked about the writing: when is the blog going to appear, they would inquire politely, gently, and I would feel wonderful. So I began to talk to my family and friends – in my head, thank goodness, trying to put all of this in words.
When Vince and I arrive each time, I check in at a desk, flashing my health card (which I have never been so grateful for), and I pick up two gowns. In the change room, I put the first one on backwards and the second one over my shoulders. Then we sit in front of the therapy room to which I’ve been assigned. The waits vary over the weeks: there are times when we sit for a couple of hours, delayed by machines being down, or emergency patients being taken first. I am never patient with the waiting, but I get a lot of reading done.
We are handed a schedule at the desk, but it is only given one week in advance – every Wednesday. Of course I am miffed by this, until my friend Merci explains that there are so many emergencies and new (often worse off) patients added each week that they’d be reissuing schedules constantly, so one week in advance seems reasonable.
It takes me a while to realize that one of the columns on the schedule is the number for the therapy room, so sometimes we are sitting in the wrong place. Once, I get moved to the room on the end, but I forget when I come out and I panic: my clothes are gone. But they’re simply in the locker in front of my “usual” bay, where I’d put them myself a few minutes before. No one criticizes me for losing my mind, thank goodness.
When I enter the “chamber” of radiation – a huge, square room blocked from the rest of world by thick walls and a corridor – there are usually two people there to greet me. They are mostly young and always introduce themselves: in fact, I get to know some of their names, as they treat me more than once. My radiation therapist is often around too; she recognizes her patients and calls me Catherine. They always ask me my birth date, lay the gown around my shoulders onto the bed, then help me lie down. They shove the bed close to an enormous machine – a huge mechanical mantis with several legs and arms, round and flat, silver and white.
Sometimes the teams are extremely efficient: they take only a few minutes to get me in place. Sometimes they appear unable to situate me properly and it takes a lot longer.
As they fiddle with the instruments, the computer, the measurements, I am lying on my back on the narrow bed, my right arm stretched above my head, resting in stirrups. My right breast is exposed until they get the measurements right, after which someone always covers me up with the gown. Often, as they reposition me, they apologize for their cold hands, but as time goes on, the coolness feels great on my red, radiated skin.
They call numbers back and forth to one another; measure with a ruler – so many centimetres from the bed, so many millimetres from the tattoo. They always comment on how my skin is doing, ask me how I am doing, check to ensure I am following the instructions. Often I am grumpy and can barely smile: these are usually the times when we’ve waited for what feels like hours, or been unable to easily find a parking spot. When the sessions are on time or early, I am cheery and pleasant.
My moods, in actual fact, are mercurial. I fight to remain positive. Everyone mentions just how great my attitude is, when in reality, inside my head, I am very often bitchy, critical, morose, and angry. Then suddenly I am light, optimistic, and happy. I even confuse myself.
When the technicians are satisfied with the measurements and believe I am in the right place, they tell me not to move. Of course, all I think about is twitching. Or the need to scratch my left cheek. Or how uncomfortable my legs are. They tell me, okay, we’re going to get started, and then they leave the room. Safe behind the protective walls, staring at me through cameras and computers.
Most of the time they take pictures first as another reassurance that the rays will only go where they’re supposed to and not overlap onto some innocent skin. One of the machine’s arms moves slowly upward, until it’s hovering above my chest. Its huge flat screen begins to make clicking sounds and I assume these are the ultrasound pictures. At this point, the bed often shakes as they ensure my body is completely within the circle of tattoos; sometimes I’m perfect. The machine withdraws this arm.
Another round-faced mechanical arm now moves from left to right, slowly, maybe a foot or so above my body. It has a mouth that opens and shuts. Silver teeth move along like a nasty wave. It makes a gurgling, whirring sound as it passes over me. I imagine the radiation gushing out from between its teeth, a mixed huff of gassy breath that will punish those errant cells with death. In its wake, it passes over my tender skin, under and on top of my pendulous right breast, and up into my armpit.
During these few minutes – and really, the radiation part only lasts about three – I do one of two things: I sink into depression and fight the tears, or I compose words in my head. Fortunately, the latter is most common.
As soon as the toothy machine is finished, my technicians come back, already dismissing me as they plan for the next patient, cheerily ta-taing me around the wall and out the corridor.
For all but one of the sessions, my husband is there: he has been watching the red light as it flashes “radiation” on the outside of the therapy bay, waiting for me. And every time I exit, he lifts his head and smiles. The one time he is not there, Tanya and Scott are; another time, Maire and John and Vince are all there. Lots of people have offered to take me, but Vince wants to experience this with me, as much as he can, and I love him so much for that.
I have to use glaxo-base cream three times a day, especially as soon as possible after the treatment session. If we are going out afterward, I bring some cream with me and apply it there. But normally, I wait until we are at home. I am not a girly-girl; I am unused to smearing on creams and paying attention to my skin. I don’t enjoy this at all. I am not allowed to put on any deodorant or shave under my right arm, so I don’t shave my legs either. (Not that I often do that in the winter anyway, I must admit.)
As time goes on, RPB (right pendulous breast) turns pink, then red, then covered with brownish spots. Eventually, she peels. When that happens, I have to start treating her with salt baths and a medicated cream. But in general, I am very proud of her: she doesn’t react at all badly, in comparison to what I’ve read of other women’s experiences. Again, though I find this attention to body parts tedious, I consider myself lucky. Very quickly, lovely pinkish baby skin appears and everything heals over. I still have to use the glaxo-base cream, but I have to admit I like it and have gotten used to applying it.
Every Wednesday, two things happen. One, our friend Susan volunteers and is waiting for us at the desk, where she hands over our schedule. She’s such a lovely person; we get lots of cheerful chat and hugs as well. Two, I visit Dr. Jasper and his nursing assistant, Kim. There’s a Wendy a the sign-in desk who is friendly and helpful. Kim is always kind, efficient, and encouraging. Dr. Jasper answers all my questions, despite being in a hurry with so many patients. They’re very good to me.
On one visit, we meet a former Dufferin-Peel colleague, Franca, and we are humbled by her position. Her daughter, who is only in her thirties and has a couple of young children, is undergoing chemo and radiation, and is in very bad shape. We are amazed at Franca’s faith and courage. Later, some time in February, we find out that her daughter has died. I wish I knew how to contact Franca to give our sympathy, but I don’t.
Christmas is fun; we visit with all our children and grandchildren; we have a blast with my family later in January. We spend New Year’s Even with Maire and John, sitting up all night and talking to 3 a.m. And still the radiation sessions go on, relentlessly it seems, until January 28.
My friends and family do what they do best. They email, call, send flowers, and generally surround me with congratulations and love. Early in the day, I start to cry. Not feminine, polite weeping: big gulping sobs erupting from deep inside, a deluge of tears and wailing. I can’t stop. Even as Vince and I drive to the hospital for the final session, I am sobbing. Tears are endless. I find speaking difficult. Vince is solicitous and sweet; he hugs me, keeps me going in tissue and hand-holding. When I exit the therapy bay for the last time, he is there as always: he comes toward me, seeing my face, and opens his arms. I put my head on his shoulder and sob.
I cry all the way to Milestones where we are meeting Cugina, Dennis, Rita and Mike. At the door, the lovely young hostess notices that I am emotional and asks if we are celebrating something, so I tell her the truth. She tells the waiter and they are amazingly kind and helpful. Of course, when our family arrives with flowers and gifts and cards, I dissolve into tears again, though these are the last of them: I enjoy the evening immensely.
While I have been attending to this part time job of radiating, life has gone on: Peter loses his mom and Helen her step Dad, snow has fallen and melted, Maire and John have gone to Mexico without us, the cats have meowed and purred, the grandchildren have grown. Dinners and lunches have happened, work has been accomplished by my Crime Writer colleagues and me. I have started a diet that’s meant to fight cancer and lose weight at the same time. My brother-in-law and I have started a Losers facebook group to keep us going at the weight loss thing. I’ve read a ton of books. These are only a few of the events that have passed. I’m uncertain as to whether I have been fully present, but I guess I have done my best.
Two weeks after the radiation is over, Dr. Jasper says I can go to Mexico. He warns me to stay out of the sun, chlorine and probably the ocean – and I wonder how I will resist. Dr. Michelle (my naturopath) doesn’t want me to drink alcohol. Ha.
So here I sit, basking in the sun, having swum in the chlorine pool, consumed a lot of beer and wine…just kidding.
Mexico blog tomorrow.
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