Tuesday, July 24, 2012

On being irradiated

Yesterday I started my second round of cancer radiation—a “palliative” treatment, in this case, to relieve the pain in my right hip. Zell Miller, the former governor and senator from Georgia, describes himself as an “80-year-old man with 100-year-old legs.” That pretty much captures the feeling in my right leg. Can I have Miller’s extra twenty years?

The worst part of radiation is not the side effects, including a fatigue that leaves you too listless to go for a cup of coffee. The worst part is the daily interruption, the small daily indignity of traveling to a windowless chamber in which you are asked to pull your pants below your knees and lie perfectly still, around which you must organize your schedule and thinking and expectations. I clamber onto a hard metal table (a nurse must lift my right leg onto it, since I no longer have the strength to do so). My feet are slotted into plastic stirrups; I am given a blue rubber ring to grip, asked what music I’d like to hear (“Do we have time for all six Brandenburg concertos?”), and then I try to float my mind elsewhere while the nurses mark up my skin with Sharpies and line me up in the linear accelerator’s crosshairs.

The radiation itself is painless. It’s the dread that hurts. In last night’s episode of The Closer (my wife’s favorite TV show and mine too), a drug-company representative who scammed oncologists by selling them saline instead of medicine for chemotherapy defended himself by saying that he was merely helping cancer patients to enjoy their last few months as human beings, rather than “dried-up husks.” The cancer patient never feels like a husk, though. He feels like a ghost within the husk.

Nothing makes you feel more ghostly than the knowledge that the same thing that killed Madame Curie, Harry K. Daghlian, and Louis Slotin is being beamed through your body—that part of you is being killed so the rest of you might live. The ghost is more precious than the husk, although it is sometimes a struggle to get the ghost to appear.