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.