Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Going to Radiation

Going to radiation is very annoying. I have to go five days a week. That really doesn't make any sense. If it's so good, why don't we go every day, seven days a week, until we're done?

The only thing I have to say in favor of this experience is, everyone who works for Dr. Trip (that's my nickname for him) is completely gung-ho about what they do over there at the Superconducting Supercollider Radiation Center. Man. I've never met people who are so into what they do. Whenever I have the slightest question or observation about what's happening, they jump at the chance to explain, explain, explain everything that's happening.

What happens? I don't pretend to understand all of this. I've previously had a CT of just my upper chest and neck ,and that scan is the guide for how they radiate me. It's a foreshortened view of that part of my body, and they get a look at all the numerous "slices" of my upper torso, all stretched out like a loaf of bread that's been pulled apart. All that information from the CT gets fed into the computers that delivers my radiation treatment. They are supposed to radiate just my breast and my lymph nodes on my left side — and nothing else, like my heart or lungs. They don't "eyeball" anything. It's all done with very sophisticated computers — state of the art, I'm told.

Five days a week, I go into the dimly-lit radiation room, where there is a machine that looks a little like a scanner and a hard "bed" you lie down on. I've got 4 Sharpie marks on my body now that are covered in clear stickers to protect the marks. Three are in red, right along my waistline. These are the marks they use to line up my body every day, corresponding to all these laser lines that are shooting out of the walls and ceiling of the room. One is in black and it's right at the top of my breast. It marks the edge of the "fly zone" of the radiation.

I eschewed their lovely exam gowns and I bring my own shirt every day instead. I lie on the hard bed with a wedge under my knees and they secure my feet with a little Velcro strap. My head's cradled in a plastic "bowl" thing. It allows for a bit of movement. That's good, because I must turn my head slightly to the right, so my esophagus doesn't get radiated. I have to raise my arms over my head and grab a kind of trapeze bar and stay that way for the entire time. They elevate the bed with me on it and my body gets close to the thing that the radiation comes out of. The technicians leave the room and close the lead door behind them. They see me on a TV screen on the other side of the room, and I can see a computer monitor that has all the data about what they're doing to me — not that I can understand it. The only thing I know is they can't mess it up because the radiation oncologist has input the data exactly the way he wants it and it's not possible for radiation to begin unless everything is precise. If there's any data highlighted in orange, that's wrong and they adjust things until it's no longer highlighted. There are no accidents. They can't radiate anything that's not supposed to be radiated.

The first thing that gets radiated are the lymph nodes on my back. Then the machine rotates around me three other times to get the other portions of the target area. When the radiation is being delivered, a lighted alarm goes off in the room. Each blast lasts around 10-12 seconds. Once when I had a different technician I commented that the blasts seemed longer than previous treatments. He gave me a very long explanation about it, but the upshot is, I wasn't getting more radiation than any other time. They just took a little longer to deliver the same dose. Again, the technology won't let them screw anything up.

A single radiation dose is 200X than what you get in an X-ray. I'm getting 33 treatments total. It opens a can of whoop ass on your tissues. Kill, kill, kill those cells. It's usually 10 minutes from the time I get out of my car and back again. That's how short the whole thing lasts. My skin is beginning to get a little red now and the area feels swollen. Remarkably, the few palliative steps you can take to help this don't do all that much — creams, ointments, etc. I'm not grossly uncomfortable yet but I've seen on other people how bad it can get. Mostly, I get extra tired sometimes. That's the cue for me to nap or go to bed early. Of course, I would rather ignore how I feel and keep doing what I'm doing, anyway.

Today's treatment will be No. 16. (Nov. 4). Almost halfway.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Things I Don't Want to Do

What is it about big illnesses like cancer that awake the sleeper cells of pagentry and celebration? I'm talking about the walks, runs, radio promotions, and all manner of public testimony about your disease. It is endless, the opportunity to lay yourself bare before semi-caring strangers. ("Oh, breast cancer," they're thinking. "Hope it's never me." Yes, you do hope that.)

I know, time was, if you had cancer no one even uttered that word. Maybe even you didn't know you had cancer. It was too awful to talk about. In the latter part of the 20th century we set about to change all that. And we did. The problem is, no one wants any limits on the discussion and the endless "sharing" of our stories. I know that no one in the Cancer Nation wants to bother me, but just once I would like a request for participation in an event to begin with the words, "We understand if you aren't interested, but we would like you to know about …"

Here are a few things I do not want to do just because I have been diagnosed with breast cancer:

1. Stand with 399 other women for a "bras across the bridge" moment. You're holding a bra (yours, maybe? one you don't need anymore? wink, wink) and you hook yours onto your neighbor's and form a giant chain of bras, so people will see … a chain of bras.

2. Buy a pink bracelet. Or wear one that's free.

3. Go on Christian radio.

4. Hand out refrigerator magnets reminding women to "feel your boobies."

5. Pose for a dreamy portrait of myself wearing my cancer cap, or worse, pose while I was bald.

Okay, so what is this blog about, right? It's a public statement about my experience, too.

I guess I am not one who finds comfort in numbers. This communication is to my friends and acquaintances, and yes, an occasional passing stranger reads it, too. But I'm not trying to get anyone to do anything. I don't think my "story" is going to change much for someone who's not a cancer patient, and as for those who are being treated for cancer, well, we pretty much know how to find each other, don't we?

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Radiating Waves and a Tall Boy

I had 21 weeks of chemotherapy, altogether. I felt every moment of it.

But now I've had nearly four months' respite from active cancer treatments. I feel much better. They stop giving you chemotherapy, and then you feel better. I feel almost normal, except for the fact that I still get tired fast (been puttering around the house, trying to find places for items displaced by the ongoing home renovations). I am not so interested in going back and being a cancer patient again.

So it was without much enthusiasm that I visited the radiation clinic today to discuss my upcoming treatment.

Nurse: So, when do you want to start?
Me: I don't want to.


Me, to Dr. : Why am I even in here? There are people out there in the lobby who can't even walk they're so sick. What is the deal?
Dr.: You had some bad luck.
Me: Oh.
Dr.: Those people out there, I'm just trying to buy them some more time.
Me: Oh.
Dr.: I'm trying to stop any illness at the microscopic level. Prevent you from being one of them someday, five, ten, twenty years from now.
Me: Yes, I was planning to be around for a while.
Dr.: Just think of this as your daily, 10-minute appointment at the 7-11.
Me: What, do I get a tall boy in a paper bag when I come here?
Dr.: Ha-ha. Sure, if that's what you want.