Last Tuesday was strange, my very day divorced into two. Maybe I’m secretly a superhero with an alternative identity: fighting cancer by day, being a normal, young adult at night, ha!
Tuesday, I went to OSU James for my radiation consultation. I am primarily a patient at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, and I will always be as long as I have the same diagnosis. However, Nationwide does not have its own radiation facility and refers their patients to the James instead.
So here I am, back at the handsome James hospital. And James has grown up with me. The building is different from when I was younger. The radiation department is no longer down in the dungeon-basement but on the second floor of the hospital. Every room and hallway looks about the same with their white, sleek doors and spaces. I almost got lost looking for the restroom because of the uniformness of it all. The fellow who is training under my radiation oncologist arrives, and he actually is probably more nervous than me. Nice guy. He honestly can’t be 5 years older than me. And as he goes over my medical history with me (“You’ve had radiation before, yes? Where?” and “When was the last time you had chemo? A year ago?”) I can tell this poor guy is slightly uncomfortable with these answers and facts about my life. I know he’s not saying it, but I can just see his mind calculating my periods of relapse/remission and comparing them to his own life and its events as someone who is so close in age to me. How could you not? Don’t we do that in order to try to place ourselves in someone else’s shoes, to show empathy, to try to find some way to understand, even if we really can’t and know we can’t comprehend it?
Nice guy who was nervous and probably just overwhelmed with the medical facts in the moment but couldn’t fully say so. I mean, I know doctors and fellows and nurses are human beings, and are in circumstances and situations that force them and show them what it means to be human, to be alive, more than any of us. I didn’t judge him for his nervousness; I was grateful it showed because he was being a human responding to me, a fellow human. One fellow to another, in both senses.
My radiation oncologist comes in and tells me that I will be doing 10 days worth of radiation for 10 weekdays straight. He also warms me of the mask they will be making today for me during my first visit. I will wear this mask during every one of these treatments in order to keep me still for the radiation to be precise and hit the same spot each time.
“Are you claustrophobic? Some people get so with the mask. If so, we can prescribe you some anxiety meds for the time you are undergoing treatment in order to calm you,” he says.
How am I supposed to know how I’m going to deal with a mask, with something I have never done before?! ( I tell him this and as I do, I realize I am sassy at times like my roommates and boyfriend say that I am, ha!)
Fair point, he replies.
The radiation technician comes and gets me a few minutes later. I recognize her, but I don’t think she recognizes me. I honestly don’t even remember her name. So are we pretending in this moment to not recognize one another that we can forget that I’ve been here before, I’ve done this before, we’ve done this routine before?
I’ve done this before: the permanent paint markings on my body for them to align, the scaly burns on the skin.
I haven’t done this mask thing before.
They show me it as the technicians are talking to me. It’s flat, plastic mesh, outlining the silhouette of head and shoulders. They show me how it goes into like a little “microwave” and heats up the plastic so that its mold-able.
I lay down on the machine, just waiting for this heated plastic mesh to come onto my face and neck. I’m wearing the hospital gown as if it is a strapless dress, low for the plastic mesh to be fitted around my shoulders. Laying flat on the machine’s table, and I am given instructions to hold onto to handles that are near me to help pull my shoulders down and in place.
“Oh, Jenna, it’s just like a morning facial,” one of the radiation technicians says as she brings the heated up mesh silhouette up to my face and neck, placing its warm, overly warm plastic heat to my face.
Ah, this is no morning facial! And there are hands, so many hands that are placing the mold to my face, not just placing but pressing it’s plastic into my pores. And I can’t even see anything, because with the heat coming so close to my face I closed my eyes instinctively to protect them. And I can’t say anything either because my lips are closed and are being pressed closed by the plastic technician’s (plural? who knows how many at this point?) touch. I can only moan. I can’t even ask them to take it off, and they wouldn’t want to either because they would have to do it all over again.
But it gets worse.
They bolt the mask and me to the table.
They bolt the mask and me to the table!
Bolts that sound like you have to put your whole body weight on to get them to push down and click. And I hear every 10 clicks.
I think they forgot that there is a human underneath here, because they have stopped talking to me at this point.
They leave the mask to cool and take more images.
Now there is no one with me, just me and the mask, the me-mask, and I can hear the machine buzzing and feel the table slightly moving.
The mask keeps tightening, tightening on my face, on my chest. Oh God, I feel like I can’t even breathe.
Try to take deep breaths (is that even possible in this mask?)
They finally, FINALLY come back and unbolt me from the mask.
I need that anti-anxiety med, I tell them.
They look at me as if they have no idea what I am talking about.
They get later for me my radiation oncologist and confer with me about the anti-anxiety meds, and I feel like crying. Cancer has made me feel trapped before mentally, but I have never felt so physically pinned down by it. Unable to see. Unable to talk to another.
It’s Josh’s birthday!
I cook him dinner in a whirlwind because, as usual, I’m late getting back home. I make him Snickers brownies like I did for his birthday last year. As he eats, we talk about his car troubles, his parents, his roommates And I already gave him his gift earlier that week because I was so excited. He gets a good laugh at the silly but meaningful card I wrote him.
After dinner, we watch an episode of Stranger Things (even though he has watched the entire season without me!)
As we are sitting and watching tv, I am struck at how normal this is. And how our conversations this evening haven’t been about cancer, or what treatment should I do, or any other worry.
I wish I could sit here and be normal and watch Stranger Things for hours with him.
Cancer superhero fighter by day (radiation mask included, mind you)
Normal, young adult by night.
Josh is so patient with me. I am so grateful for this man who has been there with me since treatment last time, and who is so faithfully here again with me this 4th time. I realize more and more why he is a blessing in my life from his deep questions he asks me, his ability to just listen and comfort, his patience to just be there for me.
I keep telling him, his loyalty and patience are God-given gifts. They are indeed supernatural, coming only from Him.
Hey, I thought this was Josh’s birthday, God!
Please pray for me in these upcoming radiation sessions, 10 in all, and for wisdom in what treatment to do next!