The radiation center is a labyrinth. There is no minotaur here, only doors with signs that remind me of a scary game show. Door Number One: Nuclear Medicine! Behind Door Number Two? It’s the Physicist’s Office, and Bob, show us what’s behind Door Number Three? Oh, I’m sorry, it’s Danger High Radiation!
It is my third day of radiation therapy. I am trying to find my way from the changing area to the treatment room. I hear the metal hooks slide along the bar of the privacy curtain. The other patient steps out and looks stunned to see me here. “I was just watching you…at home on the news.”
There is so much we want to say to each other.
I wonder but don’t ask: “Breast cancer?” or “Did you have to go through chemotherapy?” or “Lumpectomy?” Instead I stumble to be polite, standing there in my flimsy maroon hospital gown. (“Tie it in the back please,” the technician told me moments before.)
“Hi….I’m Denise, I like your dress.”
Radiation therapy is a precise science. I must report every day at the same time. I’ve already determined that Denise has the appointment just before me. So for the next seven weeks, she and I will meet in this waiting area. She has just finished her daily treatment and now it is my turn.
“Okay you’re going in…” Aria tells me. I slide into the Tomotherapy tunnel. The machine makes a noise like an electric bread maker on the “kneading cycle.” Aria has used the red beams of lasers to line up my body. Now, for 400 seconds I must be perfectly still while the radiation beam penetrates my body. I promise myself that during this solitary 400 seconds I will meditate, pray and visualize the cancer exiting my body. I imagine any rogue cancer cells as the white “C’s” on the 1920s typewriter I have at home. “Bam!” the radiation beam hits the “C” key.
“Hold perfectly still now…just about six minutes to go,” she says closing the heavy lead door behind her.
I am alone in the room. There is no one else who can do this for me. Everyday, I must show up for myself.
“Dear God, thank you for being….” I pause as something tickles my neck. I convince myself it is an ant. Just below my right ear, I feel it. “How could an ant get in the radiation center?” I wonder. Of course, it isn’t an ant. It is my imagination. I must be still, like my life depends on it. The imaginary ant is on the move, across my eyelid and on to my chin. I try to ignore it.
“Dear God” I start again. “Dear God, um GET THE ANT OFF MY FACE!”
Aria has told me the machine is so loud that they will not hear me even if I scream. They are watching me on camera and have instructed me to wave my arms if there is an emergency or if I feel claustrophobic. I am debating whether an imagined ant is an emergency when I hear the lead door open. “All done…you can put your arms down now.”
Choosing a cancer treatment is a personal decision. The goal of course is to prevent a recurrence. Earlier in the day my friend Mimi told me about a new study. She is clearly excited. The study by 17 institutions around the world shows that a lumpectomy with radiation saves more lives post surgery. Unlike chemotherapy in which the whole body is treated, radiation is localized, focused only on the breast area. But the study reveals that surgery with radiation is extremely effective at preventing cancer elsewhere in the body as well. For women who struggle with the decision and wonder if they are doing enough to save their lives, the statistics are encouraging.
Tomorrow I will return to the radiation center, and I might just bring my own sign for door number four, perhaps it will read: “Healthy Life Ahead.”