We’re all creatures of habit. We often do things so many times that we blink and have no memory of what has lapsed. It happens when we drive. It happens walking down the streets of New York. It happens throughout our every day of life. So when you have to break out of that habit, it’s a bit difficult. You have to force yourself to create an internal reminder each and every time. For instance, normally I would take the subway to 50th street, exit the subway on the south side, walk downtown three blocks, greet the same bellhop in front of the Crowne Plaza, stop in at Starbucks and order from my same Barista, jaywalk across the street, greet our building’s head of security, Ben, unlock my office’s elevator floor, turn on the hallway lights, unlock the office door, and enter to finally start my work day at 8am. I sometimes do this all without blinking.
Now, for six weeks straight, instead of doing my usual routine, I have to force myself to get off at one stop earlier. It takes me a while to figure out all of the ‘quickest paths of execution’ in order to minimize how much of my day this thing called radiation takes up. My ‘regulars’ are a little different. The newspaper gal at the bottom of the 59th street escalator, the food truck guy that has no idea that he’s probably seen more cancer patients imaginable than anyone else outside of a hospital. Then it’s the rotating shift of security personnel at the hospital entrance that seem to nod me inside before I even get through the revolving doors, as if my baldness is beacon that can be seen from miles away. I wait for the elevators as everyone else is going up. I wait for the elevator that goes down to Radiation Oncology. I get stares, feelings of ‘oh she’s doing DOWN.’ Little do they know that there were days that I regretted going up, oh those days of chemotherapy. I’d trade them in for 4 months of radiation in a heartbeat. Of course , I say that now, less than halfway through my 30 treatments. But, I digress. I get off on the lower level, and enter the doors of what seems like a sanctuary. Quiet rooms filled with massage chairs, silence, beautiful plants. I say hello to the receptionist, as I make my way to the back nursing station and the women’s locker rooms. I say, ‘Hi’ to Roberta, the nurse on duty, and step into the women’s waiting area, filled with a bathroom, water cooler, comfy chairs and four changing rooms, each with a locker, hooks and a stack of hospital gowns. I turn on the light, as I’m almost always the first one there, choose a room, take off my jacket and shirt so that I’m naked from the waste up. I make sure my iPod is securely fastened to my waste and that the cord goes up and behind my neck to insert just my right ear piece. I put on a gown, opened to the front, grab my purse and exit the room. Sometimes I have to sit and wait a bit, which is when I work on email or writing or just play a no brains necessary game, waiting my turn to be radiated.
But more times than not, Roberta tells me to go right in. I pass a patient in waiting, let’s call him Ed, an older than middle aged man, in his robe and socks, who’s almost always sitting right outside the door waiting his turn. He ever looks up at me, let alone meets my eyes. I get the feeling each time I’ve seen him that he’s had his fair share of cancer and would simply rather be anywhere else but where he is. I go through the double doors that say ‘DO NOT ENTER,’ but for some reason I’m excused from this rule. I greet my one or two radiation technicians present – either Arielina, Ryan, Mia, Charlie or Bob. Before I go in, I’m supposed to confirm that my ‘stats’ are up on each of the four monitors. I don’t know my stats. I’ve no idea what I’m looking at, so basically I just need to make sure that I see my name on each screen. Yep, that’s me. I enter the radiation room, put my purse in the only chair, and wait as they finish setting up the ‘bed.’ (I use quotes because it’s not a bed at all. It’s more like a stretcher that is just a board like a gurney. No cushion except for the pillow that is placed under my knees to support my lower back, not even under my head.) They have to put each piece on the board into the same numbered slot to make sure that I’m in the exact spot each and every time. My mold is placed at the top. They try to provide some comfort by spreading a sheet over the entire area that my body will lie, but I later realize that it’s more for their needs. I hop up, lie back, place my head into the mold at the same angle (chin up and to the left, which is the reason I only put my earpiece into my right ear), and my right arm up, pit exposed, with my elbow pressed down into its slot. The gurney moves up and then back. If I’m not perfect, it all takes a little longer. I lie with as much dead weight and as still as possible as the techs adjust me ever so slightly. Sometimes it’s just a nudge, or even a millimeter, but other times it’s pulling the sheet back and forth so they can guarantee that my tattoos line up in the exact spot every day. We chat, small talk – how was your weekend, how are the twins, etc. My radiation techs know more about what’s going on in my day to day life right now than some friends.
Once I’m set, the tech(s) leave the room and the machine moves around me. It’s not a tunnel like an MRI. I literally lie there as the overhead piece moves around me. I never got a full idea of what it looked like until I video taped myself the other morning. There’s a laser beam on the wall to each side of me, one on the wall in the direction of my feet and one on the ceiling – all about eight feet away. Nothing touches me. There is no smell. I don’t feel a thing. All I hear is a buzz that lasts 10-20 seconds. Once it’s done, the machine moves to its next position. At its position closest to my head, I can see the cross laser beams on one of my tattoos in the glass reflection. I can see the monitor that shows numbers that have to do with my exact placement, the movement of the machine, and the length of the radiation timer. My mind always wanders halfway through, and I lose myself in my iPod. Before I know it, the machine moves back to its starting place, and the bed begins to move down and out as the tech enters the room again to let me know, ‘all done!’ On good days, I’m out within 10 minutes. Bad days, more like 20.
Every Monday, I have to be examined by the radiation oncologist to make sure that I’m taking care of myself – skin care, breathing, stress, depression. I can see how people grow tired of this. It’s not really the radiation that takes long. It’s the getting to and from the hospital. It’s the prepping, it’s the patience of getting into the exact same position. You can’t move. One move, and it has to start all over. Thank goodness I’m at the beginning of the day, as to not be held up by a back log of patients. The longest wait time was because of an older Hispanic woman, who was obviously having a difficult time coming to terms with having radiation, and Arielina was talking her through it. Or the new woman that is a police officer that goes in before me. Or the business woman who has taken up doing crossword puzzles as she waits for me to be done.
When I’m done, I have a pleasant 15 minute walk back to my office, as if I’ve taken up a new form of exercise. I’m less than halfway through my treatment and doing pretty well as long as I stay lathered up. I get to my office before anyone else has arrived, and have time to apply my lotion to keep the skin protected – chest, armpit, down the side, under the breast, and then the breast itself. The Aquaphor is extremely greasy, like Vaseline, so my chest emits a shiny, gleaming look which makes me want to wear a tshirt that says, ‘Of course they’re fake, the real ones tried to kill me.’ and then I go on with my day as if all is well. I get home around 6pm after picking up the girls from preschool, get dinner on the table and reapply the lotion. They often give me a double take before hugs these days to see if I’m greasy, but I’ll squeeze them anyways. And then we’ll do exercises or stretches or just play. Even though the redness and skin treatment is maintained, there is surface browning, meaning my right underam is obviously darker than my left. But it’s beneath the surface that I have to be more concerned about. My right side has gone through traumatic events in the past 8 months – mammograms, biopsies, surgery which removed a part of it’s healing system, chemotherapy, and now radiation. There is deep tissue damage, and it continues to be damaged. I must stretch my right arm constantly. There is tightness, soreness, tingling, stinging, and numbness. This may continue for years. Another habit that I’ll live through without blinking.
As for my hair, it’s starting to come back, but in splotches and as a fuzz. I just shaved for the last time so that I don’t look like I’m actually pulling my hair out, hoping it will all grow in simultaneously. But we’ll see if I’ll be the girl with the cute pixie cut or if it decides to curl up and give me a little mini Afro for a while. Who knows? If it turns it too bad, maybe I’ll continue to shave it over the summer in order to help subside these hot flashes as they continue to come and go faster and quicker than ever.