Radiation: First impressions
I had my fifth dose of radiation today. For that, I win an x-ray! I mean a regular x-ray, not the kind that kills potential cancer cells. Apparently this happens every five treatments so they can make sure the positioning is still accurate, etc. Of all of my courses of treatment, radiation is the most mysterious to me. It’s also the…I want to say “scariest” but that’s too strong. It’s more anxiety than fear that I experience. It doesn’t hurt at all, but I think it’s the combination of being awake and alert (as opposed to being unconscious during surgery) and all alone (as opposed to being surrounded by other people during chemo) that sets my mind to pondering just what the hell is going on. Here’s what a typical radiation session looks like:
- I arrive at the radiation oncology office and swipe my card to check in. I sit in the waiting room until a tech comes to get me. I’ve never waited longer than five minutes.
- I undress from the waist up and put on a hospital gown so that it opens in the front.
- The tech asks if I want a warm blanket. I always do. She gets one out of the warmer and follows me into the treatment room/x-ray den/lair of cancer slaying.
- I confirm my name and birthdate on a large monitor and lay down on the narrow table. I shrug my arms out of the gown, and put my arms over my head, both hands on a handle behind me. The tech covers me with the warm blanket, leaving my right boob exposed.
- A second tech puts a large rubber band around the toes of my shoes to prevent me from jiggling them and moving around.
- Together, the techs use the thin cloths under my body to shift my position so that it lines up perfectly. Satisfied that I’m in the right spot, they leave the room.
- The room is cold and white. There are faded nature photos on the wall to my left and overhead. The snow-covered mountain to the left is backlit, but I’ve never seen the blossom-covered branches on the ceiling lit up. Soft music is playing. Sometimes it’s jazz. Once it was a strange cover of Journey’s “Faithfully.” These are the moments I have weird thoughts about what if the world ended while I was in here. What if I emerged to find all the people gone? OR, what if Skynet comes online and makes the linear particle accelerator try to kill me? I’m not strapped down, but how the fuck would I know if the beam was toggled from ‘cure cancer’ to ‘terminate’?
- The machine starts to hum and grind. It’s doing stuff, but I can’t see anything because it’s underneath me (did i mention the thing I’m lying on is 3 feet off the ground?). I only found out two sessions ago that they are radiating my lymph nodes from the front and back.
- The machine is quiet again and I wait. I try not to think about itching my nose or coughing, or that I might need to pee. I hold still and attempt to focus on the snowy mountain. It usually just makes me cold.
- The machine hums and clicks. It’s on the move. I’ve been told to keep my face turned to the left (“We don’t want to get your chin!” GET my chin? What now?) so I can’t see it, but the “Imaging Arm” is rising up over the horizon of the table like a cold mechanical dawn. It looms above me at high noon, inches from my face. It comes to rest on my left side, maybe half an inch from my elbow. It hums with menace. I can see the green light grid and my right breast reflected in it. I can clearly identify the slice of boob that’s about to get beamed. It’s sort of like having the Death Star up in my grill, and my tit is poor Alderaan.
- The Death Star fires its weapon. The only way I know it’s doing its thing is the noise. It looks and feels like nothing, yet it took me until the fourth session to keep my eyes open.
- The Death Star returns to high noon and rises up out of my way and the tech returns to the room to release me from my rubber bands. I get off the table and say “See you tomorrow.”
- I put my clothes back on and leave. OR if it’s Friday I see first Nurse Rad and then Dr. Spiderman. They ask me if I have pain and take my temperature, pulse, and blood pressure.
So, as of today I’m one-sixth of the way done with radiation. I don’t see any changes to my skin yet. The nurse told me I probably wouldn’t feel the fatigue for a couple of weeks, and one of my friends who started radiation before me said it took three weeks for her to feel tired. But she didn’t have chemo, so I’m not sure that’s a fair comparison. Anyway, the last couple of days I’ve had moments of extreme fatigue. Not hours of tiredness, just these maybe ten or fifteen minute waves of energy depletion. Kinda like a burst of jet lag, or as if I inadvertently passed through some sort of soul-sucking field. A sinkhole of blah. Walking through a mist laced with NyQuil. It’s weird. I have a head cold too, so maybe it’s not even the radiation. Anyway, if it IS the radiation and just a taste of what’s to come, I’d better do all my Christmas shopping early this year!
So it’s been three months since my last chemo. My hair is growing back, and I bought a teeny bottle of expensive Bumble & Bumble shampoo that smells like chocolate. It only takes a tiny drop to lather up my whole head.
My guts are still fucked up. The radiation is actually kinda making me hungry and I’ve been pretty good about eating healthy-ish protein. On the other end, the cha-cha-cha is unrelenting. When I had my latest Herceptin infusion last week, on of the nurses said that is really unusual and talked to Dr. Captain America about it. He ordered a test for C. diff, which is a bacteria you can get after using antibiotics. Basically, antibiotics (I had surgery in October, remember) can kill off your good gut flora, and Clostridium difficile moves in. So…yeah. I had to take this plastic tray into the bathroom and fit it on the toilet, attempt to get liquid poo (but not urine!) into it, and then pour it into a sample cup and deliver it to the lab. There was a lot of muttering, cursing, gagging, and then I emerged from the bathroom with a small jar of shitquid (that’s liquid shit) that I’d shrouded with a paper towel. I take it to the lab. They don’t want it because it’s got no sticker. Back to the infusion suite for a sticker, then the lab to drop off the offering.
I get a message from Dr. Cap that night. Negative for C. diff, but it’s okay to take up to EIGHT Imodium each day. Awesome. Also, he wrote, my magnesium is still hella low, so keep taking the supplement. Grr.
I feel guilty that I still feel weak and shitty. I can see the end of the tunnel (I’ll be done with the major cancer treatments by the end of the year), but there’s no light there. I will need to begin my life again, and I’m very fuzzy on what that looks like. My brother asked me a few days ago, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” And though I’ve written about this before, months later I’m even less certain of anything. When you focus so narrowly on just getting through something, arriving at the end is scary. I feel lost, not triumphant.