This is the eleventh entry in a multi-part series. Read the rest here.
I've got the first day jitters. Paula picks me up and we drive the 8.5 miles south on the 101 to the radiation facility in South San Francisco. The parking lot is full of "KAISER PARKING ONLY" signs, as if anyone wants to be here. "Can my friend come back with me?" I ask when I check in.
"Let me see," she says. How does she not know? Isn't this a question she gets all of the time?
The nurse walks me back to the women's changing room and waiting area. I remove my clothes from the waist up, put them in a small locker, and put on my gown. The locker has these cute-sy handmade signs inside: "You are a beautiful warrior!" and "Always believe in yourself." I don't know why this of all things infuriates me, but it does. It's kind of like when you're having a disagreement and you're upset but the other person stays totally calm. It's unnerving, like you're being gaslit.
There's a sign in the waiting area: "To ensure patient privacy, this area is for patients only." But the other patient in the room has a friend with her. It turns out it's her first time too. She's wearing a device around her neck to measure air quality which strikes me as funny. Like…what's that going to do?
I'm crabby, can you tell? I didn't get much sleep. My flight home yesterday was delayed for several hours so by the time I got home, it was almost 7 am Cuba time. I feel really run down but today is just getting started—after radiation, I have oncology.
Lesson learned: Next time, stay on vacation.
I still don't know what time radiation will be every day. Before I left, I gave the nurse my window of availability and she said I picked a popular time between rush hour so she couldn't guarantee it. Normally they have three machines, but one is being repaired. They let Paula come back after all and they give us a tour: These are the computers we use for imaging. This is how we can hear you. This is where we talk in the microphone.
When it's time for my treatment, they send Paula back out into the lobby. The technician unties my gown and gestures to the machine where I lie down. "Should I take my arms out of the gown?" Yes. So I do, both of them, revealing both my healthy breast and my false one. He tries to slide the gown back up to cover the real one up but it keeps sliding down and honestly, I don't care.
First they have to do a series of x-rays. They're talking me through it and I know they're just trying to make me feel more comfortable, but it's really infantilizing. Now you'll feel my ruler. Now you'll feel a cold gel. Now I'll move the machine. Now I'll adjust your chin. There's three of them and they each call out a series of coordinates as they move my body a little to the left, a little to the right, a little up, a little down.
My chin is lifted so high to the ceiling that the hard cradle pushes painfully into the ridge at the base of my skull. After what feels like an eternity, they're finally satisfied that I'm in the right spot. They leave to get the doctor and are gone for several minutes. I'm not sure how much longer I can keep my arms up.
Finally they come back to tell me the doctor is in a room with another patient. Seriously?
I want to move my body more than I've ever wanted anything but I know that if I do, we'll just have to start all over again. They bring a different doctor and he gives them the okay to proceed to the next step. My arms have been overhead for so long that I've passed from the pain stage into total numbness. They promise it will be just a couple of more minutes, but I've already heard that a few times today.
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But then it's finally time and it's actually pretty brief. The machine makes a whirring sound as it calibrates then it buzzes for about ten seconds. I don't feel anything, though I don't exactly have much sensation in this part of my body.
We do two areas then they add a cool, sticky gel pad called a bolus over my tissue expander. This pad is meant to trick the machine into thinking my skin extends beyond where it actually does so that I can get a heavier dose. That just sounds wrong, doesn't it?
The name of my treatment room is Yosemite, as if I'm on fucking vacation in one of our great national parks instead of taped to a table, half-naked, while a machine shoots cancer-causing rays into my body. There are leaf imprints on the ceiling.
About an hour later, I get to go. My skin feels warmer, but I can't tell if I'm just imagining it. I don't have much time to think about it. On to the next one. At oncology, I get the Disaffected Teenager nurse. He tries twice to insert the IV, but can't find a vein in either place. By the time he does, we're almost an hour behind schedule.
Someone I know posts on Facebook about essential oils that can cure cancer. It takes every ounce of self-control I have not to tell them to shut the fuck up.
A lot of people ask me why I got cancer, and I know it might sound crazy to you but I haven't really considered it. It doesn't feel relevant, or important, or even something that I could possibly know. But inevitably, they press—did you test positive for that gene? Do you think it's what you eat or drink? What kind of products do you use? And it becomes clear that it isn't about me, it's about them: Their fear that something bad could happen to them no matter how good they are. The well-being-as-morality complex is bullshit.
I'm sorry to tell you that bad things will happen to you. And I'm happy and relieved to tell you that the thing you think is the worst possible scenario can actually be…okay. Maybe even better than okay. If you're looking at someone and feeling bad for them, that isn't empathy.
Day two isn't as bad—I'm in a better mood after a good night of sleep and it takes way less time. But Day three is awful—they can't get me in the right spot. The nurse asks if one of my tattoos has moved. "What? No. That's impossible." They ask me to keep my breath steady, but it's hard to stay still when you're on the verge of tears.
After a long time trying, they say we're going to take a break. I get put in what feels like time-out in the waiting area. By the time we get it done, I've spent over an hour with my arms overhead and my head thrown back. This is supposed to be getting easier, but it's not.
I know I need to cry but I can't seem to find it much less let it out. Kim and I go to a Long Now Foundation talk on what the dying teach the living with Buddhist teacher Frank Ostaseski and I bawl the whole way through. Sometimes you need something outside of yourself.
He says, "Healing is always found in the middle of suffering."
Healing is always found in the middle of suffering. Healing is always found in the middle of suffering.
On day four, a patient in the women's waiting area has a tray of baked goods on her lap. "Is it your last day?" I ask. No, she just wants to do something nice for them. I don't bake. I'm not grateful. I'm the worst patient.
They've tried to make it better, though—they've set up a lighting system that will help get me in the exact right position. I don't really get how it works, but it bathes me in a red light. I can see my reflection in the machine and it looks like I'm covered in an awful rash. Whatever it is, it seems to help a little. I'm out in a half hour or so, fastest time yet.
On day five, I have a busy morning so I don't have time to get anxious beforehand. When I check in, they let me know the doctor wants to see me after treatment. Am I in trouble? Why do I feel like I'm about to be chastised?
The pain in my neck has gotten worse—I feel like I'm getting stabbed. They're still trying to get me in the right spot when I start to cry. I can't hold it back today. When I see the doctor after, he asks how I'm feeling. I tell him about the neck pain.
"Yeaaaah, yeaaaah," he says, drawing out the second half of the word. "Have you tried Ibuprofen?"
Have I tried Ibuprofen? Really?
"You know, I think the bigger problem is the placement of my head. Can we work on that?"
"Well, no, not really. We need you in the same exact place every day. If Ibuprofen doesn't work, we could also do Vicodin or Norco," he says.
Numbing out on pain pills in the middle of the day is not my idea of a good time. He walks me through how many Ibuprofen to take, up to 2400 mg per day, as if I don't know how to do basic math. You can take 600 mg four times a day or 800 mg three times a day. Yeah, I got it.
I don't tell him that every time I leave I think about not coming back the next day.
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