Radiation Recovery

I survived 27 treatments. Every day, I woke up around 10 am and got ready for an 11:20am appointment. Towards the beginning, I was super nervous. I would leave early, afraid that I would be late. The trip was 10 minutes from my house. I would slip in the parking lot around 11:05 and wait in my car until 11:15am. As time continued, I wasn’t so nervous and even began to come a little early.

When you walk into my cancer center, there are always some volunteers by the door. They are usually of retirement age. In general, most of the people at the cancer center are of retirement age. It does not go unnoticed that I am usually around the youngest one in the lobby.

I wait in the registration line until a receptionist calls me over. The same three lovely middle-aged women were there most of the time. One of them had my name. I would give my full name at first, but in time I just used my first. After a few clicks, I got a buzzer, similar to the ones at the Olive Garden, to tell me when it was time to go into the dressing room.

The dressing room was located behind a lock door that the receptionist would buzz me into. I walked through the door and turned to the left. The first door was the women’s room. Inside there was a flat screen TV on the wall, and some chairs. Two little booths contained 4-5 tall lockers with a key attached to a bracelet. In the cubby holes, there was a selection of hospital gowns to change into.

I could leave on my shirt, but I had to take off my shoes and pants. I would leave the underwear on. I tended to not wear a wig at these appointments because it would have just gotten in the way when I went back to the radiation room. I got really comfortable being bald in this area. Not the lobby, but behind the locked door of the radiation area, I rocked it.

Some days I had to wait a while. That could be in the lobby, or in the dressing room. Others days, I flew right in. The longest I had to wait was an hour. During the first wave of the “polar vortex,” I basically had the place to myself and just danced right through.

While waiting in the dressing room, I would see some women regularly who were getting their treatments. Usually I was alone, with maybe an occasional additional person. One day, there were 3-4 people in there, but that was weird. I sometimes chatted. There were older women, women with or without hair, a blind woman, and only one other woman that was within 5 years of my age.

I got used to watching The Price Is Right with Drew Carey. I used to watch it with Bob Barker for most of my young life, but had gotten away from it. It was light, fun, and it snapped me away from the solemn surroundings. When someone would change the channel to a local station’s women’s talk show, I would switch it back as soon as they left.

When my buzzer went off a second time, I would walk down the short hallway with my bald head and underwear clad butt to the radiation room. There were two right next to each other and I always went to the one on the right. At the doorway, on either side, was a desk with 1-3 technicians at it. Behind them were 3-4 huge monitors. One of them always had an x-ray of my pelvis. I would have to give them my beeper and my birthdate then we would enter the radiation room.

The door to the room was huge and made of steel. I immediately had to make a turn to the right and go down a long hallway. The walls were made of brick and covered with some industrial paint. At the end of the hall, I would make a left and on my right side there were huge cubby holes with casts of various patients’ bodies. I believe they were made to hold a patient’s body in the right position for treatment. They looked strange. Some unfortunate souls had to wear a helmet of metal mesh over their face and tied down to the table. Thank god it wasn’t me!

The room was fairly big. In the middle was a HUGE machine with arms. It had a huge monitor in the middle with numbers indicating the position. There was a circle on the ground before it. Up top, it had a part that jutted out that I assumed most of the radiation came out of.

By the hall, there was a bank of  2-3 computers. Usually a technician was fiddling with one. There would be another one by a long table. I had a contraption that they set over the table. It had a face hole like a massage table and a belly hole. Two angled pads helped position my thighs. On top of it were some linens. I laid face first on top of them. A technician would then put a cushion under my ankles.

Once in place, the technicians raised the table to right in front of the big machine. I put my arms above my head and my fingers would dangle off the edge of the table. There would only be a couple of inches between me and the big machine. I had three tattoos around my bottom. The technicians would pull back my underwear and try to match my tattoos up with set laser beams from machines bolted on either side of the room and the ceiling. If I was off, there was a technician on either side of me that would pull on the linen underneath me til I was in the right spot. Once set, a third technician offered coordinates from the back computer. They would adjust the table by millimeters. Once complete, everyone exited the room, except for me.

The huge machine would revolve around me. It could go 360 degrees. It would zap me from above, below, and either side. The zaps were extremely loud. It felt almost like someone was putting their foot on a pedal to get the machine to work. The zaps would last 5-10 seconds. On x-ray days (every five appointments), other elements of the machine would come out. A box like thing would fold out of the arm area and take pictures. Other instruments could fold out of other areas. I never got a super good look at it because I needed to remain mostly face down and not move. That didn’t stop me from taking a peak on occasion.

As soon as the treatment was done, they pulled the table back and down. I got up, readjusted my underwear and gown, and went about my business. Often times we would discuss things briefly: weather, weekend plans, and stuff. The technicians worked 10-hour days, four days a week. I got used to the carousel of staff.

On Monday, I would meet with my radiation oncologist for a moment. We never really talked about too much because my side effects with fairly mundane. I threw up once the first week. I began experiencing a different sensation when I urinated or defecated. It didn’t hurt, as much as felt different. If I needed to go to the bathroom, my wait time was super diminished. Towards the end, I did have a lot more diarrhea. I would take Imodium and it would help. My bottom would burn and I would use preparation h wipes, Vaseline, or hemroidal cream for relief. The nurses gave me an aloe cream for the back. I never blistered, but I did feel like I had a minor sunburn towards the end. They gave me a Rad-x cream with pain reliever in it for that.

Overall, the first week or so was the scariest. I cried a few times on the table while everyone was outside. I was scared, afraid that I had finally messed up my body to the point of permanent demise. You could get embarrassed about being in your underwear and being bald with no eyebrows….but why? I carried myself with my head held high and had fun with my technicians.

At the end, it felt weird. I didn’t really get to say goodbye to everyone. I did get a bag and an appointment card for a month latter. I was relieved to not have to go every day, but I sort of missed having a reason to get up and having a set of people to talk to. You can get a little depressed, so I tried to celebrate. I took my friends to my favorite pizza place. You have to celebrate these milestones. I can never have radiation in the same place again, so screw it!

It has been nearly a week since the end. I am still tired and sleep more than I should. It feels weird to know I have another three weeks till my last rounds of chemo start. I am nearing the end of this process. That in itself can be scary. I don’t know what my employment looks like. I don’t know what the rest of my life looks like. It is the kind of uncertainty that can mess with your head. Still, I am very optimistic. Sometimes you just have to keep your focus on moving the ball ahead that is right in front of you.

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