Taming Cancer's Beasts One Treatment at a Time


Making peace with radiation can be a challenge, even if high doses of targeted radiation can silence cancer cells. It took me almost two weeks to tame the beast of fear. What have you done to trick yourself into handling difficult situations during cancer treatment?

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"

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