Friday, June 3, 2016
My newest title: Cancer Patient
After having been diagnosed this March with breast cancer, I've been through a whirlwind of medical tests and treatments. Surgery appears to have removed it all. Does that mean I'm cured? In remission? I don't know, but I do know that I'm still a "cancer patient" and probably will be for the rest of my life.
I feel pretty good. I'm lucky enough to only go through radiation therapy. I actually feel guilty that I seem to have gotten off so easy. I still have my breast and my hair. It seems weird to say "I have cancer" because technically, it's gone for all intents and purposes. But many years of cancer research say my odds of reoccurrence are higher now and it's best to be vigilant.
Radiation has been an interesting process. I'm finding most people don't know much about it or confuse it with chemotherapy, which involves taking medications that treat the entire body. The two work very differently. Here's what I've learned, but keep in mind: I'm not a medical professional. This is just my understanding, which may or may not be right.
Radiation is basically a high powered x-ray beam that targets a specific area of the body, in my case, the tissue around my surgery site. That's the place most likely to have microscopic cancer cells still floating around that were missed by the surgery. The radiation kills cells at a certain stage in their life cycle, including cancer cells, and encourages new healthy cells to grow back in their place. This happens naturally all the time, but radiation speeds up the process, which is kind of amazing if you think about it.
The machine that delivers the radiation beam is a huge thing that takes up a big room. It rotates around you while you lay on a table. The process is painless, like an x-ray. There's no light or heat, but there is a green laser line they use to position you exactly the same way each time. The machine clicks a little and whirs when it rotates. It buzzes when the beam is delivered, but it's nowhere near as loud as an MRI machine. It's much faster too. Each treatment lasts maybe 5-10 minutes on the table.
They play an oldies radio station in the room so there's music to distract you, which I think is a nice touch in what could be a really sterile, dark room. The day of my first treatment, Elvis came on the radio. He was singing a song about feeling his temperature rise and I had to laugh. It all seemed so absurd at that moment, lying on my back, half naked with my arms over my head while two technicians I've just barely met push me around on the table until I'm lined up properly. (The position reminds me vaguely of being strung on a torture rack, although it really doesn't hurt, I promise.)
The worst part I've found is the hard "head rest" that isn't that comfortable and essentially being topless in the company of strangers. Thank goodness they're all professional. I guess it's like giving birth - you lose your modesty out of necessity.
The best part is the awesome rose garden the hospital has adjacent to the parking lot that I get to visit every day if I want. The roses are all in bloom this time of year.
Most days I feel pretty good about where I am in this cancer patient stuff. So many people are struggling so much more than I am. Sometimes the terror hits me. What if I'm fooling myself that I'm OK? Lots of women go through breast cancer twice, even three times. I know it could come back anytime. Could be five or ten years down the road. How much longer do I get?
The truth is, none of us know how much time we have. Could be two years or two days. I have to focus on the right-now or I'll drive myself bonkers. Right now, I feel good. I'll take it and be grateful for it. Smell the roses. Every single day of it. You should too.