By Sandra Mitchell

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.”

cimg0199 2 Blog: Warning Signs

Enter at your own risk: CIMG0199 (credit: Sandra Mitchell)

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.)

“I’m Sandy”.

“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.”

Comments (13)
  1. Susan says:

    I am praying for you!!! God be with you.

  2. suzie says:

    May God Bless you during this difficult time , my prayers are with you. God Bless

  3. Suzanne says:

    Bless you during this challenge – I appreciate that you are sharing your experiences with us! I had a similar scary experience during my treatment for thyroid cancer – just know we are all pulling for you!

  4. Chuck Davis says:

    Were are all pulling for you Sandy. God Bless.

  5. John Sturdivant says:

    I am 16 months out of radiation for stage 2 esophageal cancer..I did that concurrently with 4 weekly infusions of Cisplatin and F5U..I am praying for you and know you will be just fine..I have had 4 clear PET/CT scans,you can do this radiation thing..It’s not fun but be strong..


  6. Lorena says:

    Im 30 yrs old diagnose with Breast Cancer… I was shock and terrified.. stay positive their will be better days. I have 3 more chemo treatments and I will be done…I learn to appreciate every second I breath in this earth and enjoy life..

  7. Denise says:

    Hi Sandy,This is my first time ever to comment anywhere.I am Denise,the patient before you.I felt like you did when we met in the changing room.I saw your piece on the 10:00 news last night.I do have breast cancer.Left side got the marker”yes”.
    I don’t need chemo.I won’t be seeing you because now I am a 3:00 appointment.I feel like I have questions for everyone that I see at radiation. I hope that you are doing well.I am a bit ahead of you and have started to feel crummy.But, not everyone is the same;so they tell me. I also have Multiple Sclerosis so that complicates my situation.Have a nice weekend treatment free.

  8. Channa says:

    Thank you for sharing your story.

    Hopefully, II will hear the name of the injection that is used for when cancer has spread to the bones. It might help me.


    Gail Fields
    Los Angeles

  9. Lauri says:

    My thoughts and prayers are with you for a complete recovery. I have admired
    you on the newscast for years, and remember when you did a piece on the L.A.
    Pet Park in Calabasas, where my little dog is buried. Your empathy at that time
    impressed me greatly.

    I was also a patient of Dr. Funk, and it’s been two and one-half years since my last mammogram, when she was still at the 310 Bldg at Cedars. I no longer
    have reliable transportation, so have been putting off getting another mammo. You have inspired me to try to find SOME way to get in to see her again.\

    Again, I wish you all the best.

  10. Barbara Larson says:

    Thank you so much for sharing your story. I am also a breast cancer survivor. October 24th was my 5th anniversary of being a survivor and CANCER FREE! I am the Breast Cancer spokesperson this year for Henry Mayo Newhall Hospital. I have spoken at several events this month telling my testimony and story. I hope to be an inspiration to other women and let them know life is not over when you have Breast Cancer. My motto is “Keep a Positive Attitude and NEVER GIVE UP”. My thoughts & prayers are with you. I wish you all the best.
    In Sisterhood, Barbara

  11. Teresa says:

    Hi Sandra, I am 43 years old and was also diagnose with stage 1 breast cancer. I am in good health and no history of breast cancer in my family. My life change with my mammogram on Sept. 13, resulted with a lump.on my breast. Ultrasound and biopsy was done. On Oct. 10, I honestly was not expecting to hear the word cancer. I had so many emotions, and I thought I was gonna die soon. My 3 daughter came into my mind and decide to carefully listen to my doctor about my options. I decided to go ahead and do the lumpectomy schedule for Oct. 14. A week later I was given good news, it had not spread and little bad news, my tumor was a little more bigger than expected and a second surgery was needed to be done and schedule for Nov. 4 and after that I should start radiation in Dec. Sandra your story has made me open up about breast cancer and I am spreading the word with friends and family about getting their mammograms for early detections.

    Sincerely Teresa

  12. l.val says:

    Sandra, I have been where you are, but i needed to go through chemo first and that was difficult. I made it through all of it with faith, family, friends. I am scared everyday about cancer, but I can’t let it run my life. Fight hard and live hard, you will be fine. Radiation is a pain because you have to be there everyday, enjoy the weekends. Before you know it this will all be in the rearview mirror. On the last day of radiation you will feel like a child on the last day of school, you can’t wait to leave.


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