I’m coming to the end of my 25 radiation treatments this week. My daily trip to the “tanning bed” has become kind of like a job. The valet guys and technicians feel like old friends, and I’ve gotten to know the other poor unfortunate souls in the waiting room – mostly by diagnosis and number of treatments each person has left. It’s how I imagine prisoners must relate to each other: Silent head nod with chin, followed by: “What are you in for? How much time you got left?” I know the drill now and apparently I’m REALLY good at it. Actually – I’m ridiculously overly-flattered every time they tell me I’m really good at it – I line up perfectly! I don’t move a muscle! I’m the best! I bat my nonexistent eyelashes, blush, and kick one heel up behind me as I ask, “Have I won radiation again today?” What a completely useless F-ing skill to have, right? Nonetheless, I take pride in my mad rad skills, and I do lie perfectly still in my mold, if I do say so myself. They adjust me by pulling up on the sheet, and they shift my limp body in it like a cigar being rolled. They get my tattoos lined up to the millimeter, check measurements until it’s perfect, then they leave the room. And I mean they really leave the room. Walk far, far away and shut the gigantic, thick, vaulted door behind them. Because, really – who the hell wants to get radiated?! Oh, me? Right. I remain alone in the machine, and it’s show time. Sometimes it occurs to me how far away another human being is from this, and how thick (about a foot) the vaulted door is that you pass through to get to the room. If you actually think about what is happening, it can be upsetting, scary, and frustrating that your body is being assaulted again, and again, and again, first with toxic poison (chemo), and now with radiation to kill these microscopic, but powerful, little f’ers – called cancer cells.
So, most of the time I deliberately don’t think about it. That is one choice that is always available to us – what goes on inside our minds is totally up to us. Isn’t that amazing? The power and freedom of that fact is extraordinary. I’ve made a career out of studying the brain and our ability to exercise control over it. That comes in handy at times like this. I drive to and from the cancer center with the top down on my old convertible and have the music blaring – and I do mean BLARING. I literally drown out any thoughts in my head about where I’m going and why, and just enjoy the drive, the sun, and the music.
When I arrive, I check in and head back to the changing area. The first thing I have to do is choose a gown. Oh, what a selection… blue, or striped blue. Choices, choices. For the first few weeks, I just grabbed whatever my hand reached first when I opened the cabinet.
However, I eventually started to notice that the striped blue gowns are much thicker, warmer, and actually a bit more stylish – and I do mean just “a bit.” So I now specifically make the choice of reaching only for the blue striped gowns, and take an inordinate amount of pleasure in having this tiny little upgrade in the middle of this crap fest. I wrap that thing around me like it’s cashmere and tie the strings tight as if I’m about to walk down a runway in Milan. It’s ridiculous but it’s true. When so many of your choices are taken away from you, and suffering is forced upon you, the tiniest option can seem monumentally important. And so it is.
Per my request on the first day of treatment, they sometimes remember to play “U2.” But even if they don’t, I still have a choice of what to do with my brain. I close my eyes and meditate or daydream. They place the “bolus” which makes the radiation stronger. Great. And lately I’ve been so fatigued I usually fall half asleep. Before I know it I hear those magic words, “Great job. You can relax your arms now, you’re all done.” I put back on my oh-so-flattering, striped blue hospital gown. We all say “See ya tomorrow,” and I head back to the women’s changing room to lotion up the treated areas and get dressed. That’s it. The actual radiation is painless.
It’s the side-effects that are getting to me. I’ve developed pretty painful/itchy radiation dermatitis (pictures are on the treatment page for anyone interested). The best way I can describe it is to imagine you have a patch of skin that got badly sunburned, then you ran that patch of skin straight into a thorny rosebush that happened to be housing 1000 hungry mosquitos that then bite you all over that patch of skin to finish the job. It itches and hurts at the same time, badly, all over my chest, collar bone and back. I’m also getting pretty tired, like run over by a truck tired this week. And, because I am seriously incapable of avoiding a single complication – I’ve developed lymphedema (swelling in my right arm and chest where the lymph nodes were removed) which I’m told will be a lifelong condition. I need to wear a glove, sleeve, and trunk compression garment all day for the next 6 months and intermittently for the rest of my life. Awesome. Not a huge deal in and of itself – but just another indignity of the disease. Needless to say, I’m all set with radiation. Ready to be done. Actually looking forward to being in the hospital the following week for my next surgery.
I’ve tried to learn something different from each step of this process. There have certainly been new levels of physical misery brought on by each treatment, and I’ve been challenged to continually accept new limitations, body changes, and medical issues – many of which will be chronic. However, recognizing that we always have some choice, no matter how small, about how we react to or think about something can be an incredibly powerful and effective way to face these challenges. For me, it’s been choosing the striped blue gown and daydreaming.
Find your choices, and make the right ones for you.
You’d be surprised how many there are if you’re looking.