11 Fractions down. 14 to go.

I’ve figured out the routine now. I’ve figured out the machines, the noises, the process.

First shrug off my robe, lie down on the bed, hands over my head. A languid stretch almost, though not quite, since they always direct me to relax. Then there is quite a lot of fiddling by the warm hearted but cold-handed women who take care of me. In a constant chatter of numbers back and forth, they line me up with the lasers that come from the ceiling. “Lateral 36.5. Off 2mm. Up and back.” They move my body a few millimeters in one direction, then twist me a few millimeters in another. “54.3. I’m happy on my side. You?” When they are happy that my tattoo dots are where the lasers say they should be, the big eye comes over and looks at me. It projects a grid on my chest and they make some more adjustments, of my body, of the bed, until they are happy again. They draw lines on my chest, sometimes but not always with a ruler. Then they cover my poor sad breast with a warm wet cloth, meant to soak up some of the radiotherapy dose so that it doesn’t burn through the implant (since there’s no tissue to soak it up). This, I’m told, is better for my implant in the long term and worse for my skin in the short term. Then they leave the room and there’s a cacophony of beeping to warn all humans out of the room. Except me, of course.

Then it’s just me and this big machine. First, the big square paddle that swings out to take an x-ray, and then zooms overhead and down to my left side to take a second from a different angle. Then there are few minutes where I lie quietly as the technicians look at the x-rays from the safety of the control booth. Then there’s the tiny movement of the bed under me as they line me up exactly where they want me. Then the big eye spins around and looks at me from the first angle, nearly under my left arm, looking up. A loud tone sounds and then the DANGER lights go on next to the door to warn people away. It stays on just longer than I can hold my breath. Then a beat and it comes again, a short blip this time. I breathe in deeply as the big eye moves around to an angle on my right side, looking down on my breast from the top right. A loud tone, the DANGER lights for less than a breath. Then I’m done. I hold my position as the technicians come back in the room, take off my wet cloth, and take their final measurements.

The whole thing takes about 15 minutes. 10 minutes for the arranging and then about five for the two x-rays and the three doses of radiotherapy. I walk out into the sunshine (or, more often these days, the driving wind and rain of our atrocious summer).

My relationship to these machines is changing. Even the fact that I am having a relationship with these machines is changing. The first days, it was just utterly mysterious—the moving, the whirring, the loud sounds. What was happening? I built a story about it and then tested it with the technicians. Wrong. Each day I see a new thing, ask a new question about what’s going on.

For the first fractions, the process felt simply alarming. Those machines and those noises were my enemy, there to frighten and burn me, and I was afraid. Their cold cameras stared at me with menace.

Yesterday (fraction 10) as I watched the x-ray machine trace its arc above my head, I had more of a sense that it was looking down at me with affection. It slipped through the green laser beams and lined up to take the second picture and I could feel it bow its head in friendship. Then the big eye spun around closely, and I felt the radiation almost as a kiss. A puff of mysterious, strange energy that is trying to save my life.

While my emotions are changing, I still feel nothing physical as the machines whirr and beep. When I come out and change back into my clothes, though, a clear rhombus of pink on my chest stares back at me, brighter than before I went in. My skin feels something. The itch is spreading from the edges inward, and now there’s a heat too, like I forgot my sunscreen on that one square foot area. On a scale of 1-4 for skin damage, I’m still comfortably at a 1, which is what they expect before the half way mark. Some people never make it much past a 2. Some people head rather quickly to 4. No telling which one I’ll be.

While the machine is observing me, I observe me too. I am writing a book these days (in part) about the stories we make up in our heads, and from 8.10-8.25 each day, I am also watching the stories come to me, unbidden. I can watch the thoughts and feelings that arise and dissipate, and I can feel amused at some of them and a little horrified by others. Today I amused myself with the thought: “Wow, two x-rays every day. That’s a lot of radiation!” I went into a little wondering about whether it would be safe to skip some of the X-rays and save me some radiation before I remembered that the X-ray dose was probably not the bulk of the radiation one experiences during radiation treatment. Silly me. Other days the machines seem to be dancing on their own and I feel something almost like admiration when they hit their marks on the green lasers time after time. “Well done, little paddle! You lined up perfectly again! I wasn’t sure you’d make it this time!” Who knows, by the end of our time together perhaps we’ll be dear friends (in my first iteration of this sentence I actually typed, “Perhaps we’ll be bosom buddies!” That’s a joke worthy of Keith Johnston!).

And so we’ll see. A long weekend off as the country celebrates the third anniversary of having the our family as citizens (we were made citizens at a Waitangi day ceremony at the Governors Mansion, between my mastectomy and the beginning of chemotherapy—you can read about that day here ). Tomorrow night a James Taylor concert in Auckland to add a little sparkle to a mostly-homebound month. And then, Tuesday morning, back in the machine. I wonder what it will say to me then.

5 thoughts on “Watching

  1. Wow, thank you, Jennifer, for explaining exactly what happens. That’s really helpful to know. It’s also interesting to read of your relationship with the machines: the part of your life that is cyber-j.
    Enjoy the concert! But I wish you could send some of your rain our way, because for us it is officially the driest January in the 110 years of records. I guess between us we have a good average, LOL!
    love 🙂 Maurice & Zoe

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Jennifer, for me, your remarkable writing doesn’t just ‘bring a place alive’ to the reader, rather I get the sense that the place you are in actually becomes more alive because you are in it. When I read your writing now, it brings to mind one of my favourite thinkers (P Taillard de Chardin) who said : ‘By means of all created things, without exception, the divine assails us, penetrates us and moulds us. We imagined it as distant and inaccessible, whereas in fact we live steeped in its burning layers. In eo vivimus. As Jacob said, awakening from his dream, the world, this palpable world, which we were wont to treat with the boredom and disrespect with which we habitually regard places with no sacred association for us, is in truth a holy place, and we did not know it. ” So what I mean to say is that your writing brings a kind sacred and profound care to places, people and things that would otherwise pass us by. Maybe this happens by sheer dint of your wonderful powers of noticing, attention and imagination, but it also feels like you are somehow ‘unlocking’ something that was there just waiting to be lovingly and carefully noticed, and which , thanks to you, will never be the same again. Much love dear friend. Mend well.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Jennifer, you give such a wonderful insight, I only hope that your writing is as valuable to you as it is to those of us who are privileged to read it. After I made my last comment on your blog last month I left the office directly to meet my older brother who had arranged to meet me for coffee, the set up of this meeting was strange and I wondered what it would be about only to find out that he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer. A T1 tumour luckily but with a Gleeson score of 9 which calls for radical intervention followed by radiotherapy. On the one hand he is lucky to have caught it so early and yet unlucky that the nature of it is so severe. And so it turned out that engaging with your wonderful Blog over the previous weeks prepared me to be a supporting presence in my conversation with him that day and since.

    I don’t envy you your opportunity to develop relationships with the machinery and the process that your treatment invites you to but I do envy your exposure to James T. tonight. I hope you enjoy the concert. Know that you are ‘showered with love’ from afar as you progress your recovery!!

    Warm wishes,

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Ah Nial, I’m soooo sorry for your brother! As you say, fortunate in the strangest of ways (by not being more unfortunate). I feel that way about me too very often. Yay my cancer isn’t stave 4! Damn I have cancer at all!
      I’m so glad that my writing is a help to you in supporting your brother–and yourself, I hope–through this next chapter. I will be sending you both healing love.
      (And JT was spectacular. Next blog post about that!)


  4. Hi Jennifer,

    I found Annabooy’s comments spoke for me as well.

    I add that in reflecting on my own radiation treatment, which was a once and done (well, only with the administration but not with the radiation), the notion of developing a relationship with the administration of the radiation was a bit eye-opening. I am glad I could opt for the path I took instead of one rather similar to yours. I feel for you, having to go through the procedure repeatedly. You do it with such resilience, claiming the process for your own, creating a relationship with person and machine with aplomb (or so it seems).

    One must love thy radiation as one loves life itself! What an irony! It is a case in which what would be an enemy is the enemy of your enemy and thus your friend, to draw another parallel. How it stretches one’s capacity to redefine the immediate reality! My, my…if you didn’t share, we wouldn’t be drawn into such a unique set of perspectives. In my case, you have made more clear to me what I also experienced. As my prostate was steadily “cooked” by the microwave oven inserted into it by means of 150 radioactive pellets, I loved the little buggers because they were confounding that very dangerous tumor. Yippee! Sunburned colon and alarming/difficult urination, be damned. I was in the fight with an ally of terrible power and determined to win.

    Determined to win…so too, are you, and I am with you in spirit always. Love.


    Liked by 1 person

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