“You look so vibrant and healthy. May I ask – are you here for radiation therapy?”
I plop myself and my giant bag, a bottle of water and a banana on one of the pastel couches and I look up at the voice that has been addressing me. Slightly sweaty from a walk on the beach, on an unseasonably warm winter day, I am wearing my running outfit, and maybe the woman thought I came from the gym (I figured out quickly it’s a lot easier to hop on and off the radiation bed in sweats than a pencil skirt).
“Well, it’s only my first week. I feel fine.” I laugh.
The older woman has a pleasant and open face, cropped grey hair and a daughter by her side who reminds me of Lauren Hutton. It turns out she did indeed model in Milan in earlier days.
The older woman wants to know everything: how long does it last? what does it feel like? what are the side effects? I try to calm her and tell her the doctor and the nurses will tell her everything in great details. But here we are, trading cancer stories and looking for advice from those already in the trenches. First hand information – that is what I wanted too when I was first diagnosed. Doctors know so very much but, let’s face it, if they haven’t walked the same path, they can’t possibly know what anything really feels like.
So, what is it like? Friends and family ask. Well in the second week, I am here to tell you I don’t experience any fatigue (yet), my right boob is getting bigger and it is acquiring a tan without having been exposed to a single ray of sun. If I could now get the other breast to the same size, I would be experiencing, at least for a few weeks, the exhilaration of a B cup.
But I am getting ahead of myself. On my first appointment, a CAT scan mapped the area that would be radiated; three tiny dots were tattooed on my chest so I can be properly lined up (honestly, they are so small, I can’t even find them) and a cushion was molded to my upper body so I can hop on and off and get into position quickly. One gets the hang of it fast. Sometimes I feel I could stay longer in the pretty and spacious waiting room, chatting with the lady who comes after me and her husband. But the whole operation runs like clockwork.
A bright face appears behind the door and calls my name. A gown is already laid out in one of the changing rooms that are very reminiscent of Saks Fifth Avenue. I take off my top, put on the gown and march into the radiation room, which is dark, with music blasting, veering from pleasant jazz to hard rock, depending on which technician is working.
The machine itself is a round metal disk that moves around: 20 seconds on one side of my chest and 30 seconds or less on the other. The technicians line me up according to a green laser line that is reflected on my body. We talk of food, the weather, plans for the weekend. And five minutes later I am up and gone. Absolutely no pain but a weird feeling of discombobulation which I mentioned to the oncologist. “It might be caused by staying extremely still or your blood pressure taking longer to adjust when you get up.” Maybe. Eating something straight after seems to help the daze that sets in around my head for about an hour.
I am expecting to feel tired at some point despite my oncologist believing I have too much energy to even notice, and for my skin to eventually get burnt. Small price to pay. In a weird way, I even look forward to my appointment every day at noon: to the bright and cheery staff who genuinely take an interest, to the dark room and the warm blanket that make me wish I could linger, to the foodie nurse who gave me a jar of her precious preserved lemons. Just because. I think of some of the people I met as the bright side of cancer.
Despite a brutal 11 hour workday last Thursday, I am trying to be kind to myself for the duration and, encouraged by a post sofagirl forwarded to me titled “23 ways to treat yourself without buying anything”, I do something good for myself everyday. Here is what I have so far:
- broke into the stash of frozen tortellini my mother made at Christmas and cooked some for an ordinary lunch on my own. Just to feel her love;
- wore one of my prettiest and newest sweaters to work. Why on earth do we keep the “good stuff” for special occasions? How many special occasions occur in a week? A month? In the same vein, I am using “the good” china and glassware whenever the mood strikes me;
- drove to radiation belting the Police’s “Bring on the Night”, much to the dismay of fellow motorists stuck at traffic lights next to the out of tune middle-aged woman. Felt brilliant. Should sing more often;
- scheduled idle time to read all my favourite blogs and websites. Without a single ounce of guilt;
- finally made a Japanese chicken noodle recipe I had always deemed too involved for an ordinary weekday supper. It turned out to be beyond delicious and worth the effort.
It’s hard for me to admit the treatment might force me to slow down, as much as I promised myself I would take it easy. I am trying to convince myself, and my body, that nothing has changed, that I am as strong as ever – in reality, I am not. And it is going to take a while, and a lot of acts of self-care, to get me there.