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.

Christmas Eve at the Cancer Center

Today I had my fifth radiation treatment. To my knowledge, I still don’t glow in the dark. Besides fatigue, I have thrown up only once. Now I take nausea medication before treatment, just to be careful. I received the treatment through my back. The skin seems normal. It is a little tender. Like I have been out in the sun. The whole process has given me the perfect reason to buy new underwear, since I have to lie bare bum up to the world. I now try to open my eyes and take a peek at the big machine hovering over me. I still can’t get a great look at it. When I hear this loud sound with a bang, I am still a little nervous.

Everything appeared normal when I got to the cancer center this morning. The parking lot was almost full. The waiting room had a ton of people in there. Normally, I would be sent right back, but I waited nearly an hour before I was summoned. They had scheduled afternoon appointments in the morning because they were trying to close early. Only one of the machines was attended. After I got dressed, I sat down in the dressing room with one other woman. She seemed about my age.

We began to chat it up. She was probably the first patient my same age I have come across during my treatment. She was getting radiation for breast cancer. She is working as a school aide during treatment. She is trying to get a teaching degree, but had to hold off student teaching in order to get treatment. We talked about our treatment ups and downs, how we are handling “life” in general.

I felt a sense of comraderie with her. When I got called out for treatment, I was a little bummed to leave her. She was one tough cookie, and she made me feel like us tough cookies need to stick together.

After the machine did all of its clanging, I got dressed and walked out to the car. The waiting room had only a few people left and the parking lot was almost empty. Time for everyone to take a well deserved break. On to the next Christmas festivity…

Here We Go

Appointment 1 out of 25 done. So far, I don’t feel super different. If I feel tender, I don’t know if it is really from the treatment or my concern that it would be tender after it. I appreciate how fast I get in and out of the doctor’s. I come in, register with the front desk and take a pager. I sit for a hot minute until I get paged and am let through an electronic double door. I hang a left at the corner and enter the women’s locker room. I take off my coat and pants and put on a gown with my ass hanging out. I get a second page to go to the treatment room. The technicians greet me and take me back to a huge room with a machine bigger than an SUV to one side of it. I lay face first down on the table, and the technicians adjust me by pulling on sheets underneath me. Today, I got sensors placed by my tattoo dots. They leave and I hear the machine come at me. I know arms of it are swinging around, but I just see the blackness of the top of the table. My hands are holding my arms together above my head. I try to stay super still, but my breathing is making my whole body move up and down. I am scared. Trying to slow my breathing down makes it almost worst, so I try to think about something pleasant. I hear a loud noise, like someone taking an x-ray. There would be a few more. In less than five minutes, I am told it is over and I am released to go get my clothes back on and leave. As I exit the door, I can’t believe I am done. Do I feel different? I don’t know. Only time will tell.

 

Stagnation

Last week I didn’t have anything really planned to do. It is exciting when you start a week and you have no doctor’s appointments or commitments to worry about. It was my last week of feeling good, no treatment. I had hoped to get so many things done….pay bills, get Christmas presents in order, go to the gym, get the house in shape, etc.

I found that during most of the week, I was listless. Getting out of bed to do any of the activities I had thought of was difficult. Am I depressed? Was I just fatigued? Not really. I just wasn’t feeling “it.” As the week went on, I found myself getting more frustrated. I would accomplish one or two things on my list, but than get ticked that I didn’t get the other stuff done.

One thing I did get done was calling work and telling them I would miss the rest of the school year. It was kind of scary. It is like saying, “I know I am not going to have a job when this is over.” Still, it was necessary. As nice as my principal was, there are no assurances.

I got two presents for the most important people on my list, Alex and Max. But, I still have 7 people to get something for and barely any money to do it with. Nonetheless, one of my chemo angels sent me a glass blowing class gift certificate. It is an amazing present.

The week continued, and I continued to feel impotent. I might decide to proceed in one direction, then get nervous that it was the wrong direction and just stop in my tracks.

I thought about getting some new clothes. I haven’t really bought new clothes in a long time. This year has kind of messed with my identity. A year ago, I thought I wanted to be like Zooey Deschanel or her character, Jess, from New Girl. A hip teacher, looking for a hip guy…be happy with. After realizing that I am more likely lesbian or some kind of bi, I still have incredible identity issues. I am still trying to figure out who I am and how I go about doing that.

When that happens, I guess you are supposed to be open to some mistakes. After the wig disaster, I made the mistake of buying some new boots. I looked up some shoes on the internet and Alex said they’re great but realize everyone will know you are a lesbian. Since I wasn’t fully out of the closet, my heart sunk. My feet got cold.

“It is okay if that is what you want to look like, but you keep saying it isn’t.” Alex and Max tell me. Honestly, I don’t know what I want to look like. The more I keep hearing how horrible my choices are; I start to just avoid making any choice. I just needed something other than a flip flop to get me through the winter. I didn’t want a sneaker. I don’t need a dress shoe. It fit and it was the right price.

Alex and Max then told me that they don’t go shopping alone. Again, I am not an island. They would do it with me. Sometimes you need someone else’s opinion. Just let us in….

I on the other hand, feel like I am losing my autonomy. Is my taste so bad? I have opened up to trying things that may be more “me,” but I feel like I have to justify them or get used to some sort of backlash. This just makes me feel even less capable of trusting myself and it makes me angry and sad.

How can I give you an answer of “who I am” if I am not allowed to try things on for size? If I am suppose to get more comfortable just allowing myself to “be,” how do I justify my decisions that others don’t like? I am so afraid of making errors, that I am just making errors all the time and am beating myself over them.

When I decided what course of treatment to take for my cancer, no one would give me their real opinion. I ended up making one…but I don’t know if it was the right one. I guess I will never really know if it is. It is hard to trust my opinion if I supposedly can’t even pick out a proper wig.

This “impotence” totally spills into my finances. I cringe buying Christmas gifts. Do I have enough money? How pissed off are these people going to be if I get them the “wrong” thing? Am I buying them a gift because I want to or is it because I feel like I have to?

The biggest problem I have coming up is figuring out what I want to do about my housing. I live in a house. My mortgage is under water. I am a few payments behind. I have a packet from the bank with my options. I am embarrassed by foreclosure and don’t know if it is the right thing for me. Where would I live? Would I be homeless? Could I ever get an apartment with my horrible credit? Do I sign up for some program to get back on track and swallow bigger payments when I can’t afford the payments I have now?

I feel like I have no one to talk to. Everyone in my life has miserable information when it comes to money. I don’t know if my money problem will ever be fixed. It just causes paralysis.

While I am trying to figure it all out, I just feel like I am spinning my wheels. I get up and sometimes look around my house and feel like I could throw it all away and be happy. Other times, I want to see myself being able to fix up the house the way I want and live a happy life.

I don’t know any of the answers.

Tomorrow I go in for a simulation. Radiation is going to start soon and I don’t know the exact timing. It will be every day for 4-6 weeks. I believe they are going to have me go through the holidays. I am scared, though I haven’t shown it. I haven’t been bawling or crazy…but today I went for breakfast and pulled out the information from my doctor to read. As I got to the second or third page, a wave of emotion came over me and I shed a couple of tears. I immediately closed the booklet and just tried to down my meal.

The waitress brought me my bill and I continued to eat. A few moments latter, she came by and told me that the meal was taken care of and took the bill. What? Did I look that pathetic? I graciously thanked her and the lady at the register than went out to my car and really cried. It was so sweet a gesture.  My tears were really out of joy and gratitude.

I did make it home and paid most of my bills…but I am still looking at the mortgage stuff wondering what I am suppose to do. Hopefully, I will come across some inspired action soon.