During the months I was being treated for breast cancer, I visited at least a dozen medical offices. If you haven't been to a major hospital lately, you may not know that the trend today is to transform an austere, intimidating building that shouts, "DEATH PAIN FEAR AND POSSIBLE DISMEMBERMENT" into a calm and reassuring arena of pleasure and healing – like a spa.
The new Smilow Cancer Hospital at Yale-New Haven, where I spent much of my time enduring breast cancer radiation, is a terrific case in point, with its gardens and waterfalls, muted colors, soft music, and beautifully designed food courts with organic salads and a chef that makes omelets to order.
There is something to be said for the new trend toward hospital spa-ness. It actually did relax me. And the fact that I had an entire HOSPITAL just for ME because I had CANCER and not something as ordinary as, say, a gall bladder that needed attention, made me feel special and particularly well cared-for.
BUT I HAD TO MOVE ON
As much as I loved Yale-New Haven Hospital with its world-famous doctors and surgeons, imposing garden sculpture, and swell food courts, when I had to start radiation therapy, I opted to go to a hospital near where I taught school. I had to go every day for 6 weeks. After school, Ginny, my dear friend and colleague, went with me.
We cancer patients didn't have our own hospital, but we had our own wing and a separate entrance. There was artwork on the walls of the long hall to reception and comfy armchairs and current magazines. It was there I read an article about "chemo brain." Apparently, chemotherapy affects the brain. My forgetfulness and loss of rapid decision-making was not due to my reliance on Xanax during treatment or my paralyzing, never-ending terror; it was the chemo. I can't tell you if I thought this was good news or bad.
Anyhow, at the radiation center where everything is spa-like in design and atmosphere, everyone had pretty smocks like at the mammogram place.
I asked Ginny to wait outside.
YET ANOTHER SCARY MACHINE
I would like to tell you that by this time, I had screwed my courage to the sticking place and was noble and fearless, but that wasn't the case. Although I didn't like chemo, with the nausea, ruined taste buds, weight gain, and the accompanying Neulasta shot that felt like hot lava had been injected into my bone marrow, I was no less scared of focused radiation beamed into my chest.
I was strapped to another space-age capsule. The technician drew crosshairs on my breast, and while he was arranging the leaden protective pads (normal with breast cancer radiation), I tried to take my mind off a gory death by gamma rays. I asked him how long doctors had been using radiation to treat cancer (My insides, meanwhile, were screaming: "What are the side effects of radiation?!".
A SHORT HISTORY OF RADIATION THERAPY
Apparently, radiation therapy has been around about 100 years. Some scientist or doctor noticed that the X-ray process slowed the growth of some tumors, but the treatment wasn't very effective. Doctors couldn't target the tumors very well. They couldn't penetrate deep enough. They could only "cure" superficial cancers, reoccurrence was high, and patients got burned or got sick and died.
To make matters worse, the radiation therapy room was usually in the basement of the hospital for fear of errant radioactivity. I wondered how they got doctors to work down there in the concrete bowels of a building. Even I knew how Marie Curie died.
Scientists had to invent machines which would focus the rays on the cancerous cells only, they had to build the right tables for the patient to lie on, and they had to have the ability to send the rays deep into the body without burning things up in the process – like your spleen, for example.
Computers came along, and things improved, but it made me a little nervous that radiation therapy was pretty sketchy as late as the mid-1960s.
"This," the technician said, laying a loving hand on the monstrous machine hovering over my left breast, "this is the cutting edge of radiation therapy. Pure accuracy."
THANK YOU, MADAME CURIE
He left me to go into his little control room. The monstrous machine clicked and buzzed and redirected itself. He turned up the music and the lights dimmed except for the beautiful blue and green dome of a Sistine Chapel-like ceiling.
I was reminding myself to be grateful for the new trend in hospital spas or I would be lying on a concrete block in the basement. I remembered Ginny waiting outside for me so I wouldn't be afraid and I was grateful for her. I knew that Marie Curie died so that modern medicine knew more about radioactivity, a term incidentally that she herself coined – and I was grateful to her. I was grateful, really, but still I started to cry and because I was lying on my back, the tears had no place to go.
When it was over and the technician helped me sit up, the tears spilled out and he said, "Don't cry. You're going to be ok."
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