Following my breast cancer diagnosis at the age of 37, I underwent radiotherapy, chemotherapy and hormone therapy treatments. This is an account of my first radiotherapy session.
I was meticulously marked out with a pen seven days before, every black line and dot carefully applied to my left breast with precision accuracy. Be sure that you don’t get it wet, they warned. It will have to stay there for the next six weeks. My children would have something to say about that, I thought. And they did.
“Mummy got her booby written on,” remarked my daughter, without taking much of an interest. “Mummy got big tattoo!” exclaimed my son gleefully, immediately poking my breast with a chubby little finger. After that neither of them mentioned it much again.
The nurses gave me a blue robe to put on while I was waiting to go in for treatment. It reminded me of the chalet maid’s uniform I wore at Butlins one summer, when I was a student, so I had to laugh. Memories of a misspent youth, but it helped to take my mind off other things before I went in.
The machinery was big, clinical and cold. Intimidating. But mostly big, and I was glad I’d been forewarned. A doctor came to speak to me while I was lying down – vulnerable, bare flesh exposed beneath the huge Goliath machine above. I wanted to sit up, converse with him on equal terms while fully clothed, but I couldn’t.
He checked my marks and told me that I shouldn’t move in any way while the machine was on, for six whole weeks, for two whole minutes every time. “What if I sneeze?” I inquired. But he laughed and said with the authority of one who knows, “Nobody ever sneezes.” And he left.
Bzzzzzzz went a buzzer, as the doors sucked shut and an orange light above, ignited. My eyes closed. Ummmm hummed Goliath as he began to launch his attack. Battle had commenced.
Against the soft drone of the machine there was only silence and the noiseless clock inside my head that counted out the seconds of the timer I’d been set. Two minutes. One hundred and twenty seconds. No taste. No touch. No smell or sight. Just the constant hum that marked the death knell of an enemy within.
So, I finally began to let go; to feel enveloped by the radiation’s gift of healing in my breast. I felt the power of it. Dangerous. Frightening. But ultimately offering a cancer patient’s precious need – hope. One hundred and eighteen. One hundred and nineteen. One hundred and… buzzzzzz. Green light on. Doors opening. Voices. Normality. Time stops for no man, isn’t that what they say? And life does go on, even if you’ve got cancer.
Within the sanctuary of my cubicle, I donned the clothes I came in and prayed to the God of radiation to make me well. Then somewhere in the distance I could hear another buzzer sounding – someone else’s private battle had commenced. I made my journey home.
Six weeks, I thought. A tiny price to pay.
And I never, ever sneezed.