Here’s something you don’t want to hear while waiting for your daily dose of radiation:
There’s something wrong with the machine.
After more than a week of right-on-schedule treatments running like a Swiss subway, one day during my second week of radiation there was a backup and the waiting room was full. Normally, it’s pretty quiet in there, with everybody doing the look-at-the-ground-shuffle-your-feet-in-silence-or-maybe-whisper-quietly-to-your-radiation-date thing but on this day there was an edge in the air, with everyone not so furtively checking out everyone else. I honestly don’t remember who broke the ice, but it’s a safe bet that it was me.
“I picked the biggest gown in the joint,” I announced, emerging from the ladies locker room in a hospital robe down to my ankles. “You and I should swap,” I suggested to an older man, slumped in a chair with his arms crossed over his chest, his blue gown barely covering the lower portion of his thighs.
“They’re all the same size!” insisted the senior citizen volunteer, whom my mother calls Rosie the Riveter, the one with the gravelly voice who sits, unapologetically, in the cancer ward, talking about drinking and smoking.
“Oh, no they’re not,” protested another man, setting off a lively debate about gown selection. I twirled around in my floor-length number to help prove his point. “At least you’ve got nice legs,” I said to the guy in the mini.
Once the gown discussion was exhausted, conversation turned to the life-size, molded plastic masks (note to self: find out what they call these things) that hold you in place on the table and mark your radiation spots. The question: To keep or not to keep? One woman said she couldn’t decide. Her neighbor, she informed the audience, had his hanging in his backyard shed along with the gardening tools and lawn mower. An elderly gentleman sitting across from her said he didn’t know how he would get his home, since he rides the train in to treatment. Rosie suggested a big plastic garbage bag. Perfect! I said. It’ll look like you’re dragging a body onto the R-6. That could be fun.
Cancer patients have proven to be hilarious stand-up comedians, especially considering the limits of the material. Most of them just get quiet when they’ve run out of jokes, but those with the energy to continue talking tend to turn to the serious stuff, the stuff that prompted me not to talk to anyone during my months of chemo, a decision that seems wiser by the minute. This one has a brain tumor. That one has tonsil cancer. I had wondered why not all the patients in the waiting room changed into hospital gowns. Suddenly it dawned on me: These people are all getting radiation to their heads.
Rarely does someone come right out and ask you what’s wrong with you. The questions are more oblique: How are you feeling today? How much longer is your treatment? It doesn’t take long to assess that everyone in this room has it worse than I do. I recognize the woman sitting across from me from the skin care and makeup session I had attended during my first month of chemo in the spring. Her treatment for breast cancer had been well underway at the time. How much longer is your treatment? I ask. She has to get chemo until December.
My first week of radiation had been sobering for different reasons. Two people I had worked with in television died of cancer, one from lung cancer, and one from colon cancer. The sportscaster who died of colon cancer was just 46 years old.
I tell the lady sitting next to me, the one who just had 14 lymph nodes removed, the one with the scar all the way up the side of her jaw, that she should go to one of the Look Good, Feel Better sessions. There’s one coming up in September, I tell her, I saw the flyer in the elevator. It was worthwhile, wasn’t it? I say to the breast cancer patient. Yes, she agrees. You can see how much it’s helped us, she adds, dryly. I am sitting there with no hair, no wig, no scarf. Neither of us is wearing any makeup.
Two people with ports sticking out of their throats walk by. It’s all relative.
I am almost always the youngest person in the room. Kids with cancer must all go to special hospitals. Half the patients here call me “honey” or “dear.” How are you feeling today, honey? Good luck to you, dear.
I am relieved when they call my name. Renee, my awesome radiation therapist, has Motown playing. The Temptations are singing “My Girl” as I climb onto the table.
Because my normal machine is “down,” I get treated on one of the older machines. It takes three times as long to deliver the same amount of radiation. Instead of counting to ten for each zap, I count to 30. It feels interminable.
“How many X-rays is each of these treatments equal to?” I ask Renee.
“Nobody’s ever asked me that before,” she responds, promising to follow up with one of the physicists. She will later tell me that the physicist said the number was too big to calculate. She does know, however, that one trans-continental flight will expose you to the same amount of radiation as a chest X-ray, a random statistic, but no more random than saying “I’m getting 30 grays of radiation.” At least it’s a statistic I can remember.
On Friday, week three, my last day of radiation, the waiting room is practically empty.
“Where is everyone?” I wonder aloud.
“Friday in the summer. People take the day off,” responded Rosie.
“You mean the staff. But what about the patients?”
“Them too. People like their long weekends in the summer. They take Friday off.”
From radiation? You can do that? It makes no sense, but what else is new?
“Bye-bye, honey,” says one of the men. “Good luck to you.”
“Good luck to you, too,” I say.
For all our chattering over the previous three weeks, no one ever exchanges contact information, or even names.
I know I will never see any of them again.