Radiation treatment has begun and it's the final stage of my cancer treatment. I'm in week two of a six-week course of treatments that last all of five to eight minutes. By October 10th, I'll be done. The countdown to completion is on.
Unlike chemotherapy or surgery, radiation cannot be seen or felt. It's a big ole mystery to me. So I ask questions. Its effects are cumulative, I'm told. Eventually, it will lead to fatigue and skin changes such as sunburn and possible blistering and peeling of skin. Beautiful. Can't wait. Right now, I don't feel much of anything.
Two techs--April and Anne Marie--line me up under the linear accelerator (LINAC for short). Sounds scary, I know, but it looks a little like other scans, only larger. But there's no comfy cushion on the table. I'm on a sheet on the hard table with my head resting in a clear plastic mold. They slide a leg rest under my knees, which helps me to relax. (Side note: I need one of those for home.) I grab onto the handlebars above my head and let my elbows drop to the trays positioned on either side.
In preparation for treatment, the techs tattooed tiny freckles on my chest and sides to ease with the lineup. I lay heavy on the table while they use the sheet to position me perfectly. With the mother of all remotes, they move me up and under the LINAC. "Turn your head slightly to the right." I always forget that part because I'm fascinated with watching the red and green lights. The red creates a target on my chest. The green looks like some kind of measurement device striped down the middle of my chest.
A cross is cut into the ceiling tile above me with red LED lights glowing from within. I asked what it's for and it's simply a center point for alignment. All the lights are cool and distracting. I want to turn my head, but I have to remember to keep it angled.
Because my tumor was on my left breast, the radiation oncologist was concerned about my heart being in the way of the radiation beams. "How long can you hold your breath?" he asked me. "I don't know. Pretty long, I guess. 30 seconds, maybe. Should I practice?" I'm nothing if not a good student.
He explained that when I hold my breath, my heart moves up and to the right away from the radiation beams. So each of the six angles begins with instructions over the intercom to, "Breathe in ... breathe out ... breathe in ... and hold."
An electrical buzzing sounds though I cannot see or feel anything. I fight my body's urge to twitch while holding my breath. I close my eyes and find my zen. "And breathe." Phheeeewwwww.
The LINAC moves around me with batwing-like trays coming in close, showing red laser lights across my body and then slowly, smoothly flying out again. Each time, it's a different angle targeting the beam on what's called the "tumor bed." The large round accelerator uses a series of "fine, tungsten leaves" to shape the beam to the precise shape of the tumor bed. I can see and hear these leaves being adjusted in the accelerator, almost like the aperture on an SLR camera.
With each position, I hold my breath longer ... 10 seconds, 17 seconds, 22 seconds. And then I'm done. And I'm one step closer to being a cancer survivor instead of a patient.