Radiation walk-through

Oct 02

I drive from my house to the hospital, making allowances for traffic on the highway, construction traffic, university traffic, and hospital construction traffic.  I park in the parking garage, and take two different elevators, one up, walk three hallways over, then a different one down.  I arrive in the Radiology suite, and I swipe my ID bar code under the scanner in the waiting room.  This notifies the radiology techs that I have arrived.  It is a dazzling finale of efficiency in my otherwise non-efficient journey.

My swipe means that I don’t actually have to wait in the waiting room: I navigate the halls: right, left, right, straight, second right, and find the staging area.  I find a dressing room, undress my top half, don a hospital gown, and put my belongings in a locker.  The lockers are exactly the same size and shape as the lockers from my junior high school, complete with the little lever that opens the top portion.  Once, I put school books in that space; now, it holds my purse.  I leave the little changing room gowned with my locker key around my wrist.  I sit and wait for the techs to tell me they are ready for me.  I have the same appointment time every weekday for the next six weeks.

The techs wave me in and we brush past their command station: an array of monitors and complex equipment that resembles a cockpit in cubicle form.  We move into the machine room, and I ditch the gown.  I lay on a board that is two feet by eight feet.  My arms are positioned over my head, my head is turned to the right.  There is a mold on the top half of the board that was made for me: it is a cast of my upper body so that I am positioned exactly the same way each visit.  When they told me about the body cast, I envisioned a messy paper mache project with some trepidation.  Thankfully, it is merely a beanbag-like pad that holds its shape when the air is vacuumed out of it.  Every current radiology patient has their own beanbag body cast stored somewhere in the depths of the hospital.

The techs use buttons and switches to raise me up so that I am shoulder height (still horizontal on the board) in the center of the machine room.  There are green lasers coming from the walls and ceiling that crisscross my body.  The techs raise, lower, push, pull me until the lasers are precisely lined up with the (many) Sharpie marks on my shoulder and ribcage.  I take note of the clouds painted on the ceiling and try to hold still.  I wiggle my fingers in an effort to keep my arms from going numb.  I ponder.  I pray.

The techs move around, in, and out, of the room in a practiced yet vigilant manner.  I can tell they respect the power of the machine and technology they work with.  I hear them, but cannot see them due to the fact that I am closer to the ceiling than the floor, and also that my head is positioned to one side, and also that I must hold still.  They talk to each other in indecipherable short hand: “Eight-nine and a half.”

“Ninety-six over here.”

“Do you need more there?”

“Have you got the cone?”

I don’t understand any of it, and if I were to ask questions it would interrupt their flow.  Maybe my next appointment.  Or appointment number five.  Or fifteen.  Or twenty-seven.  It’ll depend on how many pictures I can find in those clouds painted on the ceiling.

When I first met with Dr. Razzle, my radiation oncologist, I asked her to give me a short explanation answering what is radiation?   She replied, “We do radiation because it works.  We have proved that people who have radiation have less chance of recurrence than people who don’t have radiation.”  It is another method of nuking cancer cells and mitigating risk.

Around, above, and behind me, the machinery spins and whirls at a slow rate.   Every so often, only when the techs are out of the room, I hear a measured buzzing sound.  I know that invisible rays are damaging the DNA of any cancer cells in the path.  I pray for the angles and the measurements and the rays prescribed by Dr. Razzle: that they would make my body inhospitable to cancer, that they would spare healthy tissue, that they would mark the terrain with No Evidence of Disease.

The techs drape what feels like a room temperature heating pad over my torso at one point.  At times the machine is inches from my face, other times it is off to my left side or underneath me where I can’t see it at all.  I am interested in the workings of the machine, but vow I will not break my “Do Not Google” rule when it comes to my cancer and my treatment.  I have the home and personal cell number for Dr. Razzle.  She encourages me to call if I have questions.  “Dr.” Google, I imagine, would only incite anxiety.

Much like the Chemo Room, the Radiation Room has an aura of respect, an unhurried atmosphere, and a lives-are-saved-here vibe.  I embrace what could be boring as quiet and peace and time to pray.

The buzzing stops, the techs tell me they are done.  They use a remote control and lower me back to the ground.  They touch-up and re-tape my Sharpie marks.  Since I would like to exercise, they will check with Dr. Razzle about giving me permanent (freckle-sized) tattoos so that I don’t have to deal with the tape that doesn’t seem to stick to my skin.  I put my gown back on, reverse my path to the dressing room, use my key to open my locker.  I apply my special lotion recommended by Dr. Razzle (thirty-five dollars for six ounces!) to the area being treated.  My fair skin, red hair, and freckles caused Dr. Razzle to cringe when she met me.  In hopes of preventing radiation burns, I am to apply castor oil to the radiation field morning and night, hot compresses after the castor oil, plus the special lotion at least three times during the day.  It’s a lot of grooming, especially for someone who is still appreciating the efficiency of having super-duper short low-maintenance hair.

Burns are one of the side effects: they would come on in delayed fashion, much like sunburn comes on, only much worse than sunburn.  The chance of burns increases as the treatment progresses: it is important I am conditioning my skin now, while I am still asymptomatic.  Other side effects include the risks of heart damage, lung damage, lympedema, and causing new cancer.  I trust Dr. Razzle to manage these risks.  I follow the marching orders of my brilliant team of doctors.  All of them are in agreement that radiation is a must for me, and I’m good with that.


  1. You continue to amaze me with your outlook & gratitude. I pray for you & your family. I am so glad that you have family & friends to support you, Also happy that you are back home & feeling some normalcy.Please know that many people are lifting you up to Heaven & sending love & best wishes. At the same time, you are encouraging others who may be facing similar challenges. I like the matter of fact way that you describe so many scary things; it seems to take some of the mystery out & some of the fear of the unknown. Bless you for blessing us.

  2. Michelle /

    Congratulations on beginning this next phase of your journey with continued grace and courage. Your family must be so darned proud of you. I will be thinking of you, and hoping for your expensive super-cream to keep the burns away. May you find many new and inspiring pictures in those clouds with each visit!

  3. Karen Kendrick /

    When I sat up from my very last radiation treatment, they let me pull the valve on my beanbag body mold. I had wanted to be the one to do it. And they gave me a certificate of graduation. I still see my techs when I go for my annual, and when I play the piano in the lobby for Christmas. I love them.

    But here are two important bits of knowledge:
    1. Maintain your range of motion NOW and ALWAYS. While the radiation works its fascinating! magic, it also makes a thin layer of what amounts to shrink wrap inside you. It’s easier to maintain your range of motion than to have to reclaim it. Find a personal trainer specializing in BOTH physical therapy and Pilates.

    2. I learned some of my deepest lessons from people I met in the radiation staging area. So many situations and ways of looking at them. People let their guard down because no one knows the reckoning like another cancer patient. Record the views that resonate with you. Mentally step around the rest. Do not absorb anyone else’s fear or despair. It is not yours. Just know that you are seeing feelings that even their own families may not allow them to show. Forgive me if I’ve said too much. Just don’t miss a thing. Lessons like these may never pass before you again.

  4. Kim Rourke /

    Your detailed explanations though overwhelming to absorb are non the less helpful to those of us “looking in” from afar. I am passing this onto a fellow teacher currently undergoing radiation. As Karen said in her post, anything that might help is worth rolling around in your mind for a bit.

    Praying for perfect aim!!!

  5. Peggy /

    Prayers and positive thoughts were already said for you this morning, but now that I’ve read this blog entry, I’ll need to add more specifics to the list ~ healthy heart, clear lungs, no lympedema or new cancer AND the strength to be diligent with your time-consuming slathering routine so you can maintain the integrity of your gorgeous skin. I’ve heard others comment about the “shrink wrap” feeling of the radiation, so Karen’s advice to maintain range of motion is spot on! Since there are clouds on the radiation room ceiling maybe your little Sharpie marks could somehow be turned into a star-constellation patterned tat and you could name it something like “Brilliance” to better signify your amazing outcome of this cancer Oydessy. ♥

  6. Shell & the crazies down under /

    You are simply awesome, brave and beautiful. But we already knew that.

  7. Melissa /

    Thank you for continuing to share your story. Reminds me very much of when I took my father to his radiation appointments. Praying for those beams to do their job, for your physical healing and your mental strength.

  8. Thinking about you as always. I am touched by your journey and pray for you. I appreciate your ability to put your experience into words for the rest of us. Hang in there!

  9. Hiya,

    A random, Midwestern reader here, taking a moment to thank you for sharing your journey.

    I have been following your blog since Glennon over at Momastery shared the link to this site, and I’ve been praying for you, and rejoicing about NED. I am a nurse, with most of my experience in Oncology, so my prayers have been pretty darn specific. I also have two daughters with ages very similar to yours, and can relate so very much to your stories of their daily triumphs and challenges. I have been cheering you all on from far away, in my anonymous fashion. I cried joyful tears at your post introducing NED.

    Today, I am writing to let you know that hearing your thoughts on the more technical parts of this process has been instructive and healing for me as a care giver. It is a wonder to me how we humans unknowingly serve and strengthen each other, especially through unexpected connections via the internet. Blessings, blessings everywhere.

    Profound thanks, and heartfelt wishes for the very best to you and to yours!


  10. Andrea Fuderer /

    Continuing to pray for you Jen as I read your blog posts. Praying for the radiation to do it’s job and not allow that cancer to come back. Hopefully the appointments will seem to go by more quickly as you continue to do them day after day. I know they did for Ryan. When Ryan finished his radiation, they gave him a certificate and let him keep his mesh “head mold”, lol. The thing is freaky looking….I’m thinking of hanging it up for halloween this year to scare the trick or treaters:) Ryan did not have many side effects from the radiation, which I am somewhat attributing to his age and good health during the process. Ryan’s RadiaGel just expired…or I would send it to you!

  11. Thank you for sharing this with us. It is all new information to me, and it helps to understand your journey a little more. Sending a hug and praying for peace and healing…

  12. Go radiation Go!

  13. Angela /

    I have never commented but I’ve been reading your blog since Glennon’s post. I don’t know you but I just want to tell you how much I am rooting for you. You are amazingly brave & I am inspired by your words, by who you are. Thank you for sharing your beautiful & courageous journey. Sending lots of positive, loving & healing vibes!

  14. Julie /

    I just wanted to chime in with how happy I am for you. I am saying a prayer for you right now.

    Julie and baby (soon to be little boy, it is all going by so fast)

  15. Thank you for this fascinating explanation! None of my friends who have battled cancer has ever told me these things. The technical aspect is truly amazing. Our bodies are wonderfully created, aren’t they?

    Praying for healing rays of light in the radiation room — and continued Light along your healing path. ♥

  16. Marsha Vonderwish /

    You are doing a wonderful job in this ‘war’ on cancer. Radiation is a wonderful, powerful tool. I’ve had more than my share and after a decade I’m still here! So thankful for modern treatments AND so thankful you are on your way to NED!

  17. My dad and his brother both had radiation (and the beanbag cast) for prostate cancer, and now my aunt has it for brain cancer. I never thought of it as so… spacelike. Solitary. I don’t know.

  18. christineohlhauser /

    You’ve done amazingly well at keeping such a great attitude and everything. I’ve opted for surgery instead of radiation for my situation but at the same time I am trying to eat well and actually a friend gave me the book called “The Halleluijah Diet” which I’ve only read a fourth of but its really good…check it out:)

  19. It’s been a while since I’ve read your blog, and I’m so glad that your MRI results and surgery went so well. I just wanted to say that you are being such a good patient; you are playing that role so well and letting the doctors and techs play their roles well in this drama that is saving your life. Your reminder that life is for LIVING is helpful to me. Thank you for writing your blog.