The Sci-Fi World of Cancer Treatment


When I started cancer treatment, I had been cast in some sci-fi flick without prior consent.

When cancer comes calling, things can begin to get odd. Downright peculiar, in fact.

I knew I had permanently departed from Kansas, Dorothy, when my thumbnails became a rather weird, purplish-indigo hue near the cuticles. It resembled that awful ink that always wiped off from those old-school mimeograph forms. Women in my support group advised wearing dark nail polish.

To be perfectly honest, this whole “Big C” journey has offered up an odd assortment of experiences that defy description to the undiagnosed. Post-menopausal spotting was bad enough, yet the profuse bleeding while in Mississippi for the birth of my first grandchild was strange and frightening (I had already seen the gynecologist and was diagnosed when I returned home). It reminded me of how a young girl may feel when her menses begin...only after not having a period in 15 years.

Then there were the first diagnostic scans and imaging tests I underwent. Seriously, I just knew I had been cast in some sci-fi flick without prior consent. Those machines — cylindrical, metal behemoths that whirr and whine, white orbs of laser precision — something straight out of “Space Odyssey,” where the robotic machines stage a coup against us humans. And there freeze I — the unwilling sacrifice — johnny-clad, prone on a flat slab, being slid into the maw of the medical beast and told to not twitch a centimeter.

And last summer’s external beam radiation treatments (25, to be exact) did not alter that sense of other-worldly strangeness. More machines, only those computerized critters purred in surround-sound while my arms were held above my head. I listened to rather bland 1980s “muzak” programmed by the friendly radiation techs who efficiently attended to me before deftly scurrying to their assigned posts somewhere far, far away from the external beams…and me.

One day I realized a thin, green light was projected across my body in angles reminiscent of laser tag or some Jedi light show. Could alien probes be next?

Not only is brachytherapy a rather cutting-edge, internal radiation treatment, it is also a word neither professionals nor patients can easily pronounce. My treatment plan featured two outpatient sessions of that radiation. I cannot really do the procedure descriptive justice in a public forum accessible to minors and sensitive readers who are easily triggered. Suffice it to know this: if Torquemada, the Grand Inquisitor of the Spanish Inquisition, had acquired training in radiology, he would have perfected brachytherapy treatments on his unwilling victims.

Trust me, girl. Weird.

But perhaps reality truly skewed all the way out of the universe when intravenous chemotherapy treatments began. A catheter was surgically inserted near a chest artery to facilitate the intravenous lines, creating a visible bump subcutaneously over my heart. I could see it and touch it, right there under my skin, like some slumbering parasite that awakens to burst through my body at an appointed time.Like that centipede thing in that movie “Alien.”

And that’s before the taste buds die, the digestion takes on a whole, new rhythm and the pounds shed like autumn leaves. Nobody really prepares you for chemotherapy side effects, most individual to the particular patient. Everybody empathizes as your locks leave your scalp and they all get to see the true shape of your skull. But you’re shocked when your body takes on the form of a hairless chihuahua: you are shorn of the usual stubble on eyes, in nose, under arms, on legs and other unseen body parts.

The image reflected in the shower mirror hardly seems human at times.

At the treatment center, reclining leather hospital chairs are clustered near huge windows with skinny, silver poles of bagged medicines overhead. Seen from the bank of elevators, those chairs encircle the softly lit room. Patients in varying stages of cancers are swaddled in fuzzy blankets and warm headgear, watching nurses deliver the life-saving toxins in the clear plastic, one drip at a time.

Intermittent alarms chirp for attention when the medicine bag empties. Nurses require recitation of name and birth date prior to refueling those bags (why not serial number?). Most of us come to the center with a loved one; some bravely arrive solo. The hours-long marathon is run in the assigned recliner with occasional bathroom trips, snacks and nearby snores to break the monotony. Everyone follows the unwritten code: no loud cell phone chatter; do not make prolonged eye contact upon first encounter; share only as much personal information as desired; refrain from alluding to mortality, especially someone else’s.

It is a tableau eerily reminiscent of circled wagons on a desolate, lunar landscape. Sometimes I want to dial up the Mothership and beg them to return for me. If only I could remember the number….

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