The Radiated Little Black Book
The smallest comfort offers the largest reward
The wind blew brutally cold as I gingerly made it to the car. My neighbor and close friend Terry offered to drive me to my radiation appointment. Once a day, for six weeks, I had the privilege of dropping my pants in front of a room of people and displayed on security monitors. Oh, joy.
The process is fairly simple. You go to the preparation room, take a hospital gown, only change in the affected area and wait in the next room with everyone else. The gowns are typical institutional gray, thin cotton, and poorly closed uniforms. Since my tumor, named Marvin, stretched from the back of my knee clear into my mid-glutamis maximus, I had to remove my pants, underwear, socks and shoes. I left on my top. I still felt vulnerable. My rear end flapping in the breeze.
Today I carried a small black moleskin notebook. Anything to distract me during treatment. I couldn’t bring in metal. I tried a novel but my attention wandered. The cancer. My mother’s recent unexpected death. My autistic child. My pre-teen daughters. Distracted husband. Massive medical bills. Thousands and thousands of dollars. The debt we were sinking into for a small chance of survival.
Waiting became pleasant though. Not because they had good magazines. Waiting was nice because I made friends with my fellow victims. The same people came before me and after me for the duration of my treatment.
An older woman in her sixties had a metastasized lung cancer tumor growing up into her brain and wrapped around her spine. Her spirits were high and she was so positive. Her smile lifted me every day. The chance for her survival was minimal. The radiation was mostly to ease her pain in her final months. She said she was ready though. Every day she would tell a story about her grandchildren. Her laughter contagious.
A very young man came in right behind me. He did not have to wear a gown but he did wear a hat, as he was completely bald. His brain tumor had come back since the initial bout in childhood. They were hopeful to get everything this time before cancer moved elsewhere.
The fortitude of these individuals was and is still humbling. Marvin was minor compared to the challenges they were facing.
The waiting became a game for all of us. Every day a new person would be added to the schedule or rescheduled. We played guess the cancer. Dependent on what part of the body was unclothed, we would guess the cancer. Cheers to the right guess. I know that it appeared insane to those on the outside. Laughing raucously in the most serious of situations. New people were at first affronted at our black humor. But after a time, they also joined in.
Topless women meant breast. We were right every time. Bottomless men were mostly colon, pancreas, or the “other” kind of cancer. Not very many guesses were right. We laughed about incisions, parts removed, prosthetics, wigs, attendants, waiting rooms, and just about everything.
I often wonder if there was some type of gas leakage to make us laugh so much. I will be forever grateful for playing the ‘Guess the Cancer” game.
I never admitted the humiliation of radiation. I did not even tell my husband the full details. Sure I hinted but I don’t think he truly understood how humiliating the process was for a person.
In my local hospital, radiation is delivered in a large room that resembles a vault. The lighting is dim and the room is cold. As you walk into the room you pass through large, heavy, metal doors a foot thick. They close these doors before starting the procedure. Each time I felt a moment of fear when the door made its final humph and hiss as it sealed me into the room.
You are naked when they shoot you full of radiation. The part of your body receiving this high dose of deadly radiation is beamed into the tumor and you must have that part clear of any clothing, metal, or really anything. No zippers. I couldn’t wear jeans (not they would have fit around Marvin). Only drawstring pants without the metal circle at the string. No shoes. No bras. No earrings. No wedding band. You are stripped of all that is familiar and sealed into a cold, sterile room while you are panicking about whether you will survive this betrayal of your body.
Get the picture?
Not yet. Radiation kills everything. I was warned that I could have radiation burns midway through the process. I was told to apply this special lotion to the area every day after the radiation treatment. Not before. The cream would help keep my skin blistering.
Picture if you will, Marvin stretches from the back of my knee into mid-left butt cheek. The fingers from the tumor were spreading into all areas of my backside. Even those areas you are told to never expose.
Every day for six weeks, I would lay flat on my stomach on the cold, sterile table. My leg would fit into a cast so that it was angled correctly for the radiation beam. The technician (who looked like Lance Bass) would then tape my buttocks to the table opening the area and hopefully preserving my anal tissue. I lay like that for ten minutes alone in the room while the technicians monitored me on TV in their spaceship like station outside the room. The monitors were large and faced into the hallway. Fortunately, you had to really look hard from the waiting area to see anything on the monitors. I am sure that seeing my whale-like butt was enough to frighten any potential patient.
On the third day, I asked if I could bring a book into the room. Anything to distract my mind from what was going on behind me. Of course, they replied.
The next day as I lay on the cold metal bed stomach down; buttocks taped; head face down with my hands dangling - I held my little black book. The moleskin cover was faded and wrinkled from use and love. As the door whooshed shut, I gently held the treasure in my hand and opened the cover.
The click of the equipment was the only sound in the vault room. Oblivious, I randomly flicked through the yellowed pages. My mother’s poetry. Words eased my worry as I sank into the comfort of childhood. The whoosh and whir of the machinery spun around me and I lived only in the memory of my mother’s poetry.
A final click and the door exhaled open and I was helped off the table. I slid into my dressing gown taking a moment to hold the book close before I left. My mother’s spirit surrounded me buoying me from beyond.
My friends nodded, smiled, and laughed as I passed on my way to the lockers. Calls of “See you tomorrow!” offered hope for the future. I entered the dressing room and perched gingerly on the bench placing my pile of clothing on the chair.
I jumped at the sound of a knock on the dressing room door.
“Mam?” I heard the voice of the radiation attendant. “Mam. You dropped an envelope. I laid it on the counter out here.”
I was confused and dressed quickly. Shouldering my purse, I hobbled out of the dressing room. Placed squarely on the counter was a small yellowed envelope. The type of fancy envelope you enclosed with a gift or send with a thank you note. The type of envelope my mother would mark her place in the notebook.
Gathering the envelope, I turned to wave goodbye to my friends and exited. My friend Terrie would be waiting. Yet I paused. Holding the envelope, I moved down the corridor out of sight and opened the envelope.
Inside rested a lottery ticket. Only six months old. Huh? I thought to myself. I couldn’t remember her ever buying a lottery ticket. She eschewed games of chance calling them fool's errands. I turned on my phone glancing around to ensure privacy and googled lottery numbers.
Slowly I entered the date. Why would she put it in an envelope? I sighed as I mourned the fact that I couldn’t ask her.
My purse at my feet in the quiet hallway, I held that notebook tightly to my chest. I watched as the numbers for that date appeared. Quickly, I compared the numbers on the ticket to the screen.
I read the numbers again.
A future for my family.
About the author
Author, mother, grandmother, and former teacher - Annie Taylor has three decades of writing in a variety of forms. She has written manuals, speeches, books, and sales brochures. Annie travels the US in her RV obsessively writing.