Radiation was the hardest challenge during my cancer treatment. After six months of weekly infusions, which followed surgery and the usual challenges, you would think I could handle anything. I could not.
For one thing, although I am not claustrophobic, I do not like to be pinned down. I need the assurance of freedom of movement, a need that affects where I sit in a restaurant and what classrooms I will teach in. I am not just a cancer survivor, but also the survivor of an assault that made me skittish. I thus spent days going to radiation and feeling awful about it.
I was both ready to flee, but unable to, and worried that I would sneeze or move during the treatment. One day I confessed my phobia to a friend who had worked with cancer patients as a poetry therapist. After my 11th ordeal, she suggested that I take something into the room for comfort, perhaps a flower that I could see as I lay there.
On the 12th day, I forgot to take a flower, and yet my perspective shifted as I walked into the room. The linear accelerator did not seem as large. I caught my breath and looked around. The machine that had roared, frighteningly loud, rested in the room like a tame dragon whose fiery breath baked bread for the homeless instead of incinerating lost pilgrims.
I stood in front of the monster, the life-saving machine, and managed to catch my breath. I noticed that I had been lying on a bed of glass, the sort of bed Snow White would have slept in if apple had been carcinogen instead of poison. The sheet covering the bed was just a sheet, too, not a shroud, and my purple body mold just a purple body mold.
I noticed that the music I had been listening to the previous 11 days emanated from a CD player on an ordinary bookshelf, a CD player right in the room with me. It was small next to an enormous beam machine, and yet substantial enough to carry magnificent sound waves into my ears. Previously I had assumed the music was piped in, that this radiation room was off limits to anything mundane.
I could bring in my own CD, if I wanted, I realized, something soothing to listen to while I played dead so radiation would not burn the wrong cell. I could listen to the voices of friends or meditative Mozart or the antique music box recordings that kept me company in the chemo room. These were equally such interesting inventions, I mused, the CD machine and the linear accelerator, each using technology to interact with the human body.
It was while I was still standing there in that moment before I lay down for treatment, thinking about music, that I saw the two angels in the radiation room. One small porcelain angel nestled next to a larger one, the larger angel plugged into a simple wall socket so she could glow in a corner I had not noticed before, not when I was strapped down, eyes closed, listening to the roar of a machine that scared me.
All along, I realized that the whole time I had cowered, the whole time I had clutched cold steel poles and kept my knees straight and refused to cry, these two angels had been in my corner, as comforting as a book of poems or a flower or a friend's sweet voice on the phone telling me I could handle anything, even radiation. The next 25 days were not so hard.
Learn more about why we make our peace with radiation therapy:
National Breast Cancer Foundation https://www.nationalbreastcancer.org/breast-cancer-radiation-therapy?rel=0" ?rel=0"
The Mayo Clinic https://www.mayoclinic.org/tests-procedures/radiation-therapy-for-breast-cancer/about/pac-20384940?rel=0" ?rel=0"