I celebrate my 39th birthday, for the first time considering I may not have seen it. No steak, no cake. Instead I have started 30 days of radiation treatment. I spend my birthday riding what my second oncologist (who knew you got more than one!) lovingly calls “the boobseld”; a large wedge of pink foam that holds all my lady parts just the right way so they can get zapped without frying my heart or lungs. I mount the enormous contraption by gripping the handles near the top front and crawling aboard.
Fortunately, I guess, I wear my gown open in front, so at least my backside is covered while everything else gets to dangle in the breeze (remember, it is December). Since the techs have to leave the room while the actual radiation is happening, but have a good deal of in and out getting you situated, the door hangs wide open as I make the graceful shuffle into place. There is a little wicker privacy screen that has been placed near the exit so at least strangers roaming the halls cannot get a full show. At this point though, who has any humility left. I feel like my breasts could probably have their own YouTube channel: Gold Medal Boobsledding 2015.
Halfway through my radiation, the closest facility I can receive treatment at (45 miles away) undergoes a remodel. I get bumped downtown to the University Hospital. Add another hour to my daily drive. I also get the “opportunity” to get acquainted with a whole new set of techs and med students whose job it is to grope and adjust my body and then ask me to not breath much while they run the treating radiation into me. If I do decide to heave or sigh or cry or hiccup at that moment, I could radiate something I need…like, you know, my heart. No pressure.
Three more treatments to go, I can see the light at the end of the tunnel….and then there’s a snow storm. My small town Wisconsin road goes unplowed for two days. I miss a day of treatment and am fortunate to have a neighbor ready to illegally plow the distance to an adjoining main street or tow my truck if we cannot get through the second day. I fear this all means my radiation schedule will get bumped to January 1, 2016, an insurance reset nightmare. Luckily I have a spot reserved for New Year’s Eve. My last treatment happens at noon. By 7pm we are home cracking the champagne…because it’s midnight somewhere. I go to bed by 8 and dream of ripping my port, Charlie, from my chest, holding him triumphantly overhead as I climb the podium, 30 gold medals hanging round my neck and my hospital gown flowing ripples that match the backset American flag.
Epilogue – 2016
As I write this, I am ten months in remission. Charlie did get ripped out, albeit less gloriously than I dreamed, by my surgeon who thought it funny to offer me Charlie in a biohazard bag to take home. I declined. All my checks ups and my six month mammogram showed no sign of disease. My eyelashes came back…and fell out…and came back…and fell out…and came back, three times in total. My hair is slowly returning. I have about two inches now, I am asking for another inch for Christmas.
I am thankful to LocaLeban for allowing me to share my story. I was amazed at how many people I knew had suffered from cancer and never told. I was often told in whispers about “so and so” who lost her breasts, or her business or her mobility to cancer. I am hopeful that this series has been a step in removing barriers. There is no shame in sickness (of any kind). Voices give us power.
I am grateful to Ellen Sushak for sharing her experience, long before my articles ran, at a poetry contest and for allowing her poem to be republished here, as a first step in handing this space to another. I think it beautifully demonstrates the potency of sharing our experiences via the written and spoken word.
A Year in Blur—2012
by Ellen Sushak
Hazy days of winter, swaddled springtime, elusive summer, fog of fall.
2012 was like that, for I was caught up in cancer:
One year was bartered away, traded off,
Exchanged for an unknown quantity: The rest of my life.
With 2012 gone, I come to my senses in the dead of winter, 2013,
To beautiful, cold Reality.
I’m still here–bring it on:
Slap me in the face with your open winds.
Assault my vision with that strangely slanting January sunlight.
Freeze dry the inside of my nose, dare I inhale.
Bite into the marrow of my bones, for I live, yet and again.
Responsive once more,
Ready now to prove what a good deal I got in that trade.