I drive from my house to the hospital, making allowances for traffic on the highway, construction traffic, university traffic, and hospital construction traffic. I park in the parking garage, and take two different elevators, one up, walk three hallways over, then a different one down. I arrive in the Radiology suite, and I swipe my ID bar code under the scanner in the waiting room. This notifies the radiology techs that I have arrived. It is a dazzling finale of efficiency in my otherwise non-efficient journey.
My swipe means that I don’t actually have to wait in the waiting room: I navigate the halls: right, left, right, straight, second right, and find the staging area. I find a dressing room, undress my top half, don a hospital gown, and put my belongings in a locker. The lockers are exactly the same size and shape as the lockers from my junior high school, complete with the little lever that opens the top portion. Once, I put school books in that space; now, it holds my purse. I leave the little changing room gowned with my locker key around my wrist. I sit and wait for the techs to tell me they are ready for me. I have the same appointment time every weekday for the next six weeks.
The techs wave me in and we brush past their command station: an array of monitors and complex equipment that resembles a cockpit in cubicle form. We move into the machine room, and I ditch the gown. I lay on a board that is two feet by eight feet. My arms are positioned over my head, my head is turned to the right. There is a mold on the top half of the board that was made for me: it is a cast of my upper body so that I am positioned exactly the same way each visit. When they told me about the body cast, I envisioned a messy paper mache project with some trepidation. Thankfully, it is merely a beanbag-like pad that holds its shape when the air is vacuumed out of it. Every current radiology patient has their own beanbag body cast stored somewhere in the depths of the hospital.
The techs use buttons and switches to raise me up so that I am shoulder height (still horizontal on the board) in the center of the machine room. There are green lasers coming from the walls and ceiling that crisscross my body. The techs raise, lower, push, pull me until the lasers are precisely lined up with the (many) Sharpie marks on my shoulder and ribcage. I take note of the clouds painted on the ceiling and try to hold still. I wiggle my fingers in an effort to keep my arms from going numb. I ponder. I pray.
The techs move around, in, and out, of the room in a practiced yet vigilant manner. I can tell they respect the power of the machine and technology they work with. I hear them, but cannot see them due to the fact that I am closer to the ceiling than the floor, and also that my head is positioned to one side, and also that I must hold still. They talk to each other in indecipherable short hand: “Eight-nine and a half.”
“Ninety-six over here.”
“Do you need more there?”
“Have you got the cone?”
I don’t understand any of it, and if I were to ask questions it would interrupt their flow. Maybe my next appointment. Or appointment number five. Or fifteen. Or twenty-seven. It’ll depend on how many pictures I can find in those clouds painted on the ceiling.
When I first met with Dr. Razzle, my radiation oncologist, I asked her to give me a short explanation answering what is radiation? She replied, “We do radiation because it works. We have proved that people who have radiation have less chance of recurrence than people who don’t have radiation.” It is another method of nuking cancer cells and mitigating risk.
Around, above, and behind me, the machinery spins and whirls at a slow rate. Every so often, only when the techs are out of the room, I hear a measured buzzing sound. I know that invisible rays are damaging the DNA of any cancer cells in the path. I pray for the angles and the measurements and the rays prescribed by Dr. Razzle: that they would make my body inhospitable to cancer, that they would spare healthy tissue, that they would mark the terrain with No Evidence of Disease.
The techs drape what feels like a room temperature heating pad over my torso at one point. At times the machine is inches from my face, other times it is off to my left side or underneath me where I can’t see it at all. I am interested in the workings of the machine, but vow I will not break my “Do Not Google” rule when it comes to my cancer and my treatment. I have the home and personal cell number for Dr. Razzle. She encourages me to call if I have questions. “Dr.” Google, I imagine, would only incite anxiety.
Much like the Chemo Room, the Radiation Room has an aura of respect, an unhurried atmosphere, and a lives-are-saved-here vibe. I embrace what could be boring as quiet and peace and time to pray.
The buzzing stops, the techs tell me they are done. They use a remote control and lower me back to the ground. They touch-up and re-tape my Sharpie marks. Since I would like to exercise, they will check with Dr. Razzle about giving me permanent (freckle-sized) tattoos so that I don’t have to deal with the tape that doesn’t seem to stick to my skin. I put my gown back on, reverse my path to the dressing room, use my key to open my locker. I apply my special lotion recommended by Dr. Razzle (thirty-five dollars for six ounces!) to the area being treated. My fair skin, red hair, and freckles caused Dr. Razzle to cringe when she met me. In hopes of preventing radiation burns, I am to apply castor oil to the radiation field morning and night, hot compresses after the castor oil, plus the special lotion at least three times during the day. It’s a lot of grooming, especially for someone who is still appreciating the efficiency of having super-duper short low-maintenance hair.
Burns are one of the side effects: they would come on in delayed fashion, much like sunburn comes on, only much worse than sunburn. The chance of burns increases as the treatment progresses: it is important I am conditioning my skin now, while I am still asymptomatic. Other side effects include the risks of heart damage, lung damage, lympedema, and causing new cancer. I trust Dr. Razzle to manage these risks. I follow the marching orders of my brilliant team of doctors. All of them are in agreement that radiation is a must for me, and I’m good with that.