I haven’t written much about the actual radiation treatment itself. It’s an odd thing, which may be why it isn’t often described. Five days a week, I walk into the Oncology Unit and hand over my ‘treatment schedule’ to the receptionist, which she updates weekly so that I know a week in advance when my treatment times will be. She asks my birth date and once confirmed, places a red hospital bracelet on my wrist. I move to the waiting area that has a TV and magazines and several large recliner chairs . When the radiology technicians are ready they retrieve me from this area and escort me to the changing rooms. (Before treatment started they asked me to wear two piece outfits when I come for treatment, so that I can undress only from the waist up, and wear a hospital gown like a jacket, so that it is open at the front.) Once changed, a technician escorts me into the treatment room
I feel extremely vulnerable when I am stretched out on my back, with my arms above my head and my breasts bare. The two technicians (sometimes male, sometimes female) put felt tip pen marks on my chest and sides as they ‘line me up’ with green laser lines that intersect with the permanent tattoos that are tiny dots on the middle of the chest and each side under the arms. There are rotating shield-like shapes that the technicians operate from a remote observation room and when they are ‘radiating’ they make a strange little high pitched ‘beep’ followed by a ‘whirring’ sound. I am alone in a large room that looks like something from a space station, and like many things in life, it is a solitary experience. What makes it kind of ‘okay’ are the technicians who are all quite friendly and positive and very considerate. I know they are doing this all day long, but somehow they always make me feel a bit special when they are treating me.
After I am stretched out and marked up, and feeling a bit like the proverbial trussed turkey, they gently close the front of the hospital gown to cover my chest before they retreat to the observation room from where they administer the radiation. The hospital gown fabric protects you from nothing, (except the air conditioning), and yet that gesture of ‘covering you’ means so much. Clothing seems rather symbolic in this instance since it certainly is no fashion statement, and doesn’t even really protect one’s modesty, having already had at least twenty different people view my breasts over recent months. Nor, of course, does it provide any protection of the physical wellbeing. It is just such a ‘humane’ thing to do for someone, to cover them. (It occurs to me that there is possibly some very practical reason they do this, but I have chosen not to ask because I like the idea they do it to be kind!)
The whole treatment lasts only a few minutes, including the time taken to line up with the laser beams. There is no pain, no sensation at the time. Later on there are occasionally some ‘twinges’ of discomfort, not unlike those of ‘healing’ after the surgery. After the treatment the technicians return giving me the ‘all clear’ so that I can rest my arms and wait for them to lower the table. I sit up and step down from the table and change back into my street clothes before having my hospital bracelet removed and walking out the door.
On Mondays and Fridays I am scheduled to see the doctors and nurses after treatment. On Mondays the doctor checks in with you to make sure all is going well and to answer any questions you may have. Fridays the nurses have a series of questions and observations they record, as well as to examine the skin and help with any medications you may need. We have to slather Sorbolene cream (cetomacrogol APF) onto the treated skin area 3 times a day to keep it soft so it doesn’t dry out and crack. Also I have a semi-permanent heat rash that I am treating with another cream. My skin looks like it has been sunburned but all of this will go away in weeks or months after the treatment. It is crucial to keep the skin in good condition so it doesn’t develop lesions because the radiation inhibits healing.
There is almost no comprehension possible of the invisible rays of treatment, but the people transform the experience into a reality that I can accept, and even enjoy, at times. Enjoy? One of the things I have felt at every step of this journey was meeting each new aspect with an appropriate amount of spiritual perspective, intellectual understanding and emotional clarity, would enable me to ‘go with the flow’ and not be wracked with anger, fear and misery. I have been lucky to have wonderful medical experts surrounding me, and plenty of family and friends supporting me. But I also have had to support myself, and part of supporting myself has meant staying in the moment, not regretting what could have been, nor fretting for what might happen in the future, but just being here, and now. The here and now is truly our only reality, everything else, past and future, exists only in our minds.