Champagne and a Torch to Pass

So on my way home from my LAST DAY of radiation treatment on Monday (yippee!), I stopped at the liquor store, figuring to buy a bottle of champagne. Appropriate, I think, considering the circumstances.  I was the only customer there (a good thing considering it was before noon), and there was just one clerk working the cash register. As she rang up the bottle, she asked to see my ID since I was using a credit card.  Unlike other cashiers at other places, she actually looked at the photo on my license and then looked long and hard at me, comparing the face before her with the laminated version on the card. That version has light-colored hair hanging down below her chin.  “Oh, I like the short hair much better,” she said, and went on to talk about how her mother got her hair cut short but she likes her own long hair even though she always ends up putting it up a few hours into the day.  As I listened to her talk, I realized it — I did not have to explain to her why my hair is short.  She assumed it was simply my choice of style, not the repercussion of a long, tiring excursion on the cancer path. And that’s exactly what I let her think. What a relief.

So take a good look at the photos.  This is how I looked on my last day of radiation treatment.

And accompanying me is one of the friends who helped me through.

The last 5 sessions of chemotherapy, the “boost,” started last Tuesday.  The room used for the boost is opposite the one I’d been going to, but it looks very similar. Linac dominating the middle of the room, those same pock-marked acoustic tiles on the ceiling. Honestly, they need inflatable palm trees in these rooms, walls painted in a jungle theme, something, ANYthing to dispel that cold clinical feel (and I have told them so on the feedback sheet they gave me).

The machine also looks similar, but attached to the disk hovering overhead is a short arm that holds a metal cage.  The bottom of this cage is a thick piece of metal with a hole cut in the shape of  the oval Dr. W drew on me last week. The table I lie on has no special backrest — perhaps they’ve already recycled mine — just a sheet to lie on and a pillow to lean on.  For the treatment, the cage gets moved close up, and then the technicians lay a warm orange gel pack across my chest and tape it (and me) to the table with long stretches of cloth tape.  The pack acts as a layer of skin, allowing the electrons to penetrate at the correct depth.  Once the session is underway, the machine emits a subtle fizzing noise.  The whole session takes about 5 minutes.

The doc checked my skin last week and says things look good.  A couple changes — antibiotic ointment for a week under the arm where the skin is chafed, Eucerin cream on the rest of the field, “call if you have any questions.”   The itching is diminishing and, except for the oval area of the boost, the redness is lessening too.  Any skin effects to come will appear within the next week.  After that, it’s the same scenario everyone is advised to follow — stay out of the sun, wear suncreen. Oh, and here’s a souvenir mug filled with candy to take home with you.

It seems too easy.  Go back to life as you used to live it (except for that constant vigilance part).
But surely this can’t be all?  All of the cancer gone, yes, but how do I go back to living as I was before?  The earth has spun, vistas of fear and determination opening up inside me, how can it be as it was before?  I’m not who I was then. And the whole experience taught me that I don’t necessarily understand who I am now or what it is I’ve come through.  So, although the trips to the doctor have ceased, my journey has not.  Now I have to figure out how to be, all over again.  That could be almost as frightening as the illness was.

Fortunately, the oncology center is working on ways to ease this transition back to the future of the “new normal.”  In addition to the naturopath, the massage therapist, and the other services they offer, they are instituting a program for those ending treatment.  I met with the clinical psychologist who is marshalling the effort and came home with a stack of information almost as big as the one I had before starting chemotherapy.  Lots of good resources for dealing with this time that is, as the radiation oncologist described it, almost as difficult as receiving the initial diagnosis. I have been so very blessed to have these resources and so many good people looking out for me.

And now, in turn, I become one of those looking out for others.  Last week, the university where I have been teaching had its annual opportunity for women to read from their own writings in honor of Women’s History month.  I chose to read selections from these updates.  Afterwards, a woman from the back of the room stepped forward and extended her hand, explaining that she was about to embark on the same path — triple negative, no explanation for its occurrence — and had just had her hair cut short in anticipation of its coming out. This is not a torch I would choose to pass.

And maybe, if more facts about cancer and its treatment were made known, there would be fewer torches passed.  I came across an article in the Sun Magazine , an interview with Samuel Epstein, M.D.,  a British physician now living in the U.S.  The topic of the interview was cancer, and how the public is not fully informed of the issues surrounding it, the reasons it develops, and even how the American Cancer Society is not fully invested in finding causes and prevention. Epstein says there is sufficient evidence to show some definite causes of cancer: prolonged use of birth control pills and hormone replacement therapy, high-fat animal and dairy products, hormone-contaminated meat, petrochemicals in the workplace, prolonged use of black and dark-brown hair dyes, silicone breast implants, heavy smoking or drinking beginning in adolescence, inactivity and obesity.   Some of these we’ve heard a lot about, some not so much, and there’s plenty of arguments about what really causes cancer.  But I was struck by the forcefulness of his argument, and couldn’t help but notice the irony of the publication date — March 2000.  In the interview he refers to his prevention program, from his 1998 book on breast cancer, in which he recommends taking aspirin as a preventive.  And here I thought the recent article in the New York Times about aspirin as a preventive was up-to-date news.  If you’re interested in reading what Dr. Epstein has to say, take a look here:  http://www.thesunmagazine.org/archives/842

The cancer may be gone, but my journey continues….

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