Before my first round of radiation therapy, I lay on a treatment table for a computerized tomography (CT) scan and simulation to help my doctor and team plan my treatment. They made me a custom foam mold, shaping it to my torso, with my left arm extended above head. With a purple Sharpie, someone drew a cross on the left side of my left breast, another cross on my chest, one on the outside of my right arm, another on the inside of my left arm. Then came vertical lines, one on the upper abdomen right of center and two more flanking my torso toward the back of my ribcage. Then came the hypoallergenic tape over the markings, which would help preserve the lines to quickly align my body during the upcoming treatments. I left the simulation with a gift of the purple Sharpie, for touch ups if needed. Radiation would begin eight days later.
Radiation therapy targets tissues where cancer cells remain with high-energy rays. While normal cells repair themselves between treatments, the cancer cells die. During appointments, I check in, go straight to the dressing room, and change into two gowns, the first opens to the back, the other to the front. My other clothes go into a disposable plastic bag. In the waiting room, I give a weak masked smile to three other ladies and listen. They’ve all had chemo and lost their hair, one had lost her job and health insurance, and I don’t quite fit in this conversation. Part of me feels guilty for an easier cancer. Then, like clockwork, Caroline appears and says, “Mrs. Byers?”
I stand and follow.
“What do you want to listen to today?”
“90’s rap,” I say.
She shoots me a look of surprise. “Did you say rap or rock?” I had requested indie music on Days One and Two. This was Day Three.
Still masked up, I say, “Rap.” Our eyes meet and twinkle.
She asks me my name and birthday and double checks my wristband. She waves a wand around my body checking for prohibited devices and lets me snap a few photos before we head to the treatment room.
I remove my outer gown, spectacles, and mask, lay them on a side table, and scoot onto the treatment table, my body cradled in foam. Caroline hands me earplugs—the machine acoustics are noisy—then headphones. She aligns lasers to my markings. Once positioned, I slide into the tubular machine, try to relax, breathe easy, not move a muscle. I can’t feel the treatment. It’s like having an x-ray, except the dose of radiation is higher and given over a longer period. From the other side of the wall, the team monitors via closed-circuit television, and I can call them from the tube and talk if needed. When I start to feel claustrophobic, I talk to God instead. When the sounds of the machine ramp up to an electro-magnetically induced triplicate of Dee Dee Doos layered with a Wee Woo, I can no longer hear Snoop Dogg through my headphones, but I know my thirty minutes or so in the tube is drawing to an end.
My radiation oncologist told me I may feel more tired than usual but that I won’t be radioactive. I laughed at the joke, but when she said it more than once, I realized she wasn’t joking. I suppose some people have that fear. Becoming radioactive never crossed my mind.
My fatigue has been fierce, and I puked my guts out one night. Just one. Nausea isn’t listed as a side effect, and I never get sick, well, except for the cancer, but back at home, I’m physically ill. I’m not hungry. I have no desire to move. I miss my mother. But nothing lasts forever.
Yesterday, I finished the fifth of five treatments. Five of five while others get a month, plus surgery, plus chemotherapy. Let’s say a prayer for them. I’ll be okay.