Radiation Therapy: Irradiated, Radiant Me

radiation therapy breast cancer personal stories
Radiation treatment. I knew this day was coming ever since that phone call three months ago,  when I was diagnosed with stage one breast cancer, but I haven’t let myself think about it.
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Radiation treatment. I knew this day was coming ever since that phone call three months ago,  when I was diagnosed with stage one breast cancer, but I haven’t let myself think about it. Now it’s the first day of treatment and I have to think about it. Fifteen two-minute sessions. Cosmetically, those thirty minutes of zapping shouldn’t change anything. Their medical benefit may never be known. I understand radiation as a kind of mopping-up operation, to catch any stray cells that may have wandered outside the 0.6 centimeter lump itself. The side effects are supposed to be minimal, though I’m told I’ll be tired by the end of the third week. But it is cancer treatment. Radiation is an investment in my future self, the cancer-free 60-year-old, 80-year-old I plan to be.

I’ve always been a late bloomer. I feel younger and less experienced than my years. For decades now, when I’m asked my age, people always say I seem ten years younger. Inside, I feel even younger than that, like a child in grown-up shoes, playing an adult from a script. I blame it on my risk-averse, cautious nature, and on some big life transitions. I grew up on a Kansas farm, a member of a tiny Mennonite community. As a young adult, I left that community, changed my religion, and transitioned to city life. I still feel like I’m new here. So this cancer diagnosis, the possibility that death might be nearby, maybe just down the street, when I’m finally figuring out how to live, seems ludicrous. I can’t get my head around it.  

I decide to take a shower before my afternoon appointment. Since the pandemic, I’ve reduced my shower schedule to “occasional” and I just showered the night before. But, I will be getting naked for strangers. Then, having invested in a shower, I spend time choosing my outfit: white capris and a vintage Hawaiian shirt, floral in orange and hot pink, with strappy sandals. I add a necklace and some rhubarb-colored lipstick, and I fairly bounce out the door. My neighbor notices as I trot out to the car and asks if I am going someplace special. “Radiation,” I sing out. His smile tilts for a moment, but then he laughs and says, “The good thing is that now you have an excuse to smoke as much weed as you want.” I laugh along, but life is challenging enough with my head clear.

 I’ve never been to the building where I’m going to be zapped. With my poor spatial skills, GPS is a God-given miracle. Soon, I swing into the unfamiliar cancer center parking structure. I park in the tiny space without hitting anything. I note the stall number so I can enter it to pay for parking. Then I patiently coax the machine to spit out the parking pass, figure out where to exit the parking structure, and cross the street to the proper entrance, where I see lanes for staff and patients. I need so many adulting skills just to get to the door.

I stand on my 6-foot distancing dot, and move up precisely, one dot at a time. I solemnly answer questions through my mask about symptoms and possible Covid contact. I affix my Visitor badge above my left breast—the healthy one—and enter the breezy building to check in yet again in radiology. I sit on the edge of a seat in the waiting room as far from others as possible, and exhale. Then I look around.

The bright lights, shining surfaces, uncomfortable chairs, and chemical smell of cleaners make my hands sweat. One young woman with a puffy face and pale lips is leaning back, eyes closed. An older, thin woman with a head wrap is wheeled in. I don’t belong here, it’s a mistake or a mix-up. They already took the lump out, and there was no cancer in my lymph nodes. I’m cancer free, right? And I was told I had the best kind of cancer you can get—highly treatable, detected early. I’m not really sick like these other people. I look perfectly healthy; I feel fine. Maybe they should stop fussing over me and save their radiation for someone who really needs it.

Some approximation of my name stutters from the nurse’s mouth. She shows me to the undressing room. I should strip from the waist up, take off my shoes, put on the gown with the ties in the back, bring all my things out with me in this bag, and have a seat over here and wait to be called again. This is about as far as my short-term memory can extend: five steps to carry out. I manage them. Then I perch on the seat so my half-covered back doesn’t touch the icy chair. The gown is ugly, blue, and king-sized. It should say, “One size fits someone.” The hair is standing up on my pale, skinny arms. Why is this waiting room refrigerated?

A smiling, robust young man appears to collect me. I jerk from my juvenile self; I feel ridiculously old now, slow and senile next to him. David is his name, and we step into the Windansea Room for my treatment. The other radiation room is named for a beach also. Inside my head, I do an eye roll:  yeah, radiation is a day at the beach. At first glance it’s hard to imagine how it could be less like a beach—it's cold and dark and full of gunmetal gray machines suspended from the ceiling. A sheet-covered narrow platform under a dim spotlight occupies the center of the room.

But there are some similarities, I muse. Parking is a bitch. There are strangers everywhere. There’s a lot of flesh on display. I will lie down and position myself to ensure optimal exposure, and leave with a sunburn on my pale breast.

We’re joined by David’s colleague, even-younger James. They radiate healthy youth, and are handsome and solicitous. They situate me on the hard table. I’ll become a pro at this, but today everything is awkward; the gown is so huge I can’t help sitting on it. I have to stand again to get it out from under my butt. What is the point of all this modesty when I’m going to strip in a minute anyway? James says that as they position me my job is to be a bag of cement and not try to help. They pull me up toward the top of the platform, then an inch to the right. They slip my arms out of the gown and over my head into brackets. They readjust my right shoulder. I’m a life-sized doll. I smirk internally. If they pulled the string in the middle of my back, would I pipe My name is Michelle! I have cancer! Do you like my gown?

Instead, they pull out what looks like a 6-inch sewing ruler. This seems suspiciously low-tech. They’re measuring, lining up the tiny pinprick tattoos they bestowed on me a couple of weeks ago. Then they call out numbers to each other. We have Pandora, says David.  What would you like to hear? So I say Oh! Stevie Wonder, please and I get “Signed, Sealed, Delivered,” which makes me grin. I think that I will ask for someone different each day. Tomorrow, Aretha Franklin, Wednesday, Bonnie Raitt. My brain rattles on. I hope I don’t embarrass these twenty-somethings or myself with my musical choices. What if they don’t know who I’m talking about? What if they think my favorites are for old people, hopelessly lame?

The moment has arrived. They leave to avoid exposure—I am alone. Grinding sounds and green laser lights stream from the metal and glass contraption above me. Isn’t this stuff dangerous, long term? I’m being poisoned, right? Irradiated. But I feel nothing except stiff from lying motionless. The machine shuts down. Silence. They come back in, a minute later. The table bumps sideways a few notches and they move the machine above me and efficiently snap on an attachment. It’s close to me, almost touching my bare breast.

They leave the room again; the machine hums as Michael Jackson pleads “give me one more chance.” I watch my chest pulse up and down. My valiant heart keeps beating, doing what it does, what it’s always done, whether I’m grateful or not. I’ve not been grateful enough. My doctor said the rays won’t be close enough to my heart to hurt it, but it feels exposed and vulnerable anyway. I breathe an apology to my heart, right here at my core all the time and I just ignore it . . . !

David and James come back in and cover me matter-of-factly. They lower the table, and ask if I’d like a hand, but I rise unaided and go to find my clothes. With clammy hands I stuff the huge gown deep into the laundry bin and step into the light of the atrium, sandals clicking on the shiny tile.

Freed, I step out of the building into the heat and natural air. I cross to the parking structure and my familiar car. I take off the mask. I sterilize my hands. Now I know how to get out of here without the GPS. I sing loudly along with Lenny Kravitz’s “Are You Gonna Go My Way” on the way home; I dance in my seat at the stoplights. I do not look at the drivers next to me. In the house, I spread the thick Desitin-like steroid cream on my breast; it feels soothing after the assault. There, there.

I vow to myself: I will shower and wear my favorite shirts and the lipstick under my mask, and my best earrings, too, each day till this chapter is over. I glance up in the bathroom mirror. The fingers of my left hand rest on my scarred breast; my palm cups my faithful, steady heart.

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