At 8:15 am, I walked into the sad building that is the Cancer Agency. So dated and scuffed, the elevator always packed, the piano in the lobby sitting empty. I go upstairs and dutifully wait in line to register. Last time I didn’t stand on the left, as the tattered sign instructed me to and I was scolded. This time I knew better. ‘Follow the green line to Treatment Area 7’ I’m told. So that’s what I do.
Treatment Area 7 is at the very end of the building. I walk past the other treatment areas and peek into the waiting areas. They are filled with people in various stages of pain.
I’m feeling especially sad for myself because I’m alone.
I get to Treatment Area 7 and sit down. I notice other women there already changed into gowns. It is only women. I don’t know if Treatment Area 7 is just for breast cancer or what. Nobody tells me anything.
I’m not sure if the staff know I’m there. I don’t have a gown. I try to ask a woman across from me – ‘excuse me’ I say but she is immersed in her phone and doesn’t answer. She wears a scarf to cover her bare head and I feel guilty that I don’t need chemo. I don’t bother her again.
I’m now thinking there’s no way they know I’m here because I don’t have a gown. So I get up and present myself to Treatment Area 7’s desk. A young man looks up, annoyed. Just go sit down he says. Okay, I say, compliant and small. The TV is blaring a shrill morning news show in the holding area. There’s no peace here. I sit and close my eyes.
The same young man calls my name, ‘Susan’ he says. Call me Sue! I say cheerfully. Nobody calls me Susan anymore.
He’s still annoyed with me. I must be like 25 years older than him. I am an old woman to him – worse, an old woman with cancer. He has the information he needs to share with me on a wipeable plastic piece of paper. I know after he’s done with me, he will just wipe all my information off and replace it with someone else’s.
First he wants to set me straight for coming up to the desk. ‘Don’t come up to the desk,’ he says. ‘That interrupts us and we are busy working.’ I nod like I’m supposed to. ‘Next time put this pink card in that box so we know you are there.’ I protest meekly: ‘I didn’t know. It is my first time.’ He stares at me blankly, like it has never been someone’s first time before. ‘The receptionist just told me to come here,’ I say finally, quietly.
This seems like a dumb thread of conversation, so I give up, defeated. I hope he’s not my radiation therapist because I don’t want him to see my scarred and beleaguered boob.
He hands me the pink card with my appointment times for next week on it. I cannot get over how archaic and paper based this whole thing is. It is like 1961. What if I lose this coveted card? I’m sure that means I’m in trouble. I can’t help but peek at the times.
Three of out five of them are either early in the morning or late in the day. When they called me last week and asked my preference for time, I said 10 to 1 pm. There are only two mid-day times. Immediately I start panicking, thinking about how I’m going to get childcare to get Aaron back and forth to school. Crap.
Um, I say, hesitant to interrupt his reading of the information from the plastic sheet. ‘I can’t come at these times,’ I say. I bring on yet more annoyance. ‘I can talk to the clerk but I can’t guarantee it,’ he says.
I reluctantly pull the disability card. ‘My son has a disability. Not just anybody can pick him up from school.’ This is a bit exaggerated but mostly true. I don’t know if this helps or just makes me look more pathetic. Patient has cancer AND a kid with a disability. Sad. ‘We’ll see,’ he shrugs.
I follow him around as he shows me where to get changed. There’s some complicated formula for the gown thing – I’m to wear the same one every time so they don’t have to wash it as much. I leave it in a numbered bag and hang it back up afterwards. I have to remember my number.
Okay, I keep saying, nodding. At the end, he says, reading off an invisible script, ‘if you have any questions, just come and ask us.’ I am puzzled by this comment. I thought I wasn’t supposed to come up and speak to them. Maybe it depends what kind of question I have.
I get changed and look at myself in the mirror. I look terrible. My hair is frizzy. My hair colour is all fading and I look unhinged. My mascara is smudged under my eyes. Why did I bother wearing make up? I haven’t slept much. In fact, I haven’t slept much since I found that ominous lump last November, which was six long months ago.
I sit back down. They call my name again, ‘Susan’. This time I don’t bother to correct them. Susan it is. Maybe it can be Susan who has cancer. Sue does not have cancer. I’ll go back to Sue later.
The radiation therapists are both women, but they are considerably less warm than the staff who did my CT scan last week. No chit chat, nothing. Climb up here, they say. I was going to joke ‘this is just like the spa!’ but I opt to say nothing. They do not seem like the joking types. They do introduce themselves, but everything they do feels like they are ticking off a box on the list.
I have to hold my breath when I am radiated. I cannot believe how stupid this sounds and how long it took the researchers to figure out if you have cancer on the left side, holding your breath during radiation helps prevent heart disease. At least I hope it does anyhow.
‘At your CT scan, you let some air out while holding your breath.’ the radiation therapist says. Immediately I feel shame. ‘They told me I did a good job!’ I say, lightly. ‘You let some air out,’ she repeated. Then she produces what looks like a clip to hang clothes. ‘If you do it again, you have to wear this,’ she says. I don’t want to wear a clip on my nose. I have a recurring nightmare of suffocating underwater because I can’t breathe. ‘I’ll do better,’ I promise.
The lights are blaring above. I wonder why they can’t turn them down. I read once there is sometimes music. There is no music here, just the whirring of the machine. I close my eyes. They are yanking the sheet under me to put me in the right position. I pretend I’m sitting on the beach in Kaua’i. I imagine watching the waves flow in and out. I keep breathing. I think, someone should teach patients relaxation techniques before they start treatment. I have to work more on relaxing. Right now, I’m the least relaxed person on Earth.
They exit the room and I’m alone with the machine. I already hate the machine. This is the coldest and least human kind of health care. I crack open a tiny bit and start crying. My hands are above my head, in some sort of weird S&M position and I can’t wipe away my tears. I can’t cry and hold my breath at the same time, so I’m a bit panicked. I have to calm the fuck down.
They talk to me through an intercom. Apparently there’s a video camera on me so they probably saw me crying but they don’t care. I wonder if other women cry. The faceless voice instructs me over the speakers. I have to take deep breaths in and hold them for a long time. I am obedient, scared of getting the nose clip and try to comply. My poor left breast is exposed, both to the air and to the burning radiation rays. Slash, poison, burn. That’s cancer treatment in a nutshell.
I feel nothing now, but later my skin will be burned. It is cumulative so I’ll be scorched after a few more sessions.
It is done. I don’t know how long it took. Maybe 10 minutes? I get off the table and stand awkwardly in the room. ‘You can go,’ they say, pointing to the exit. Thank you, I say. I thank everybody for doing their job. I know this game. If I’m not overly grateful, I’ll be labeled as difficult, which won’t help if I need a favour one day.
I need to ask about my appointment times, but there’s that guy sitting at the desk again. I march back up there, taking my chances. I need my pink card back.
He’s busy using liquid paper of some sort to change the times on my card. Now only one is not mid-day instead of three. Thank you so much, I say, again. I see the door across the hall says, ‘radiation booking clerk’ so I know this hasn’t been much effort for him.
I get changed and get the hell out of there, following the green line all the way back to the elevator. I can’t figure out where the stairs are, so I stand silently in the full elevator for only one stop, looking at the floor.
I sit alone in the cafeteria with a tea, waiting for my Mike to arrive. He is rushing to get here after dropping Aaron off at school. One burn down, 19 more to go.
(Note: I wrote this ten days ago after my first day of radiation. I’ve tried to shake this experience off and let it go. Since then, I’ve had five more treatments. The experience has improved because: 1. I know what to expect and 2. Sometimes I am assigned a friendly radiation therapist. I am sticking to my contention that one little smile in health care always helps).