Saying Goodbye, Hopefully Forever, to Radiation Treatments

I’ve officially had my last radiation treatment. Time has passed quickly and it’s kind of hard to believe that it’s over. Sam went with me and I made sure to bring 7 more cds I’d chosen to add to their music collection. When I was going through possible music choices, I came across the Dixie Chicks – Taking the Long Way and felt like maybe that should be my last session music instead of Lucinda. I came to a compromise and listened to Lucinda on the way there and then the Dixie Chicks while in treatment. It guaranteed that I was surrounded by the sounds of women I admire, and my wife, which was comforting.

The song Easy Silence has always reminds me of my relationship with Sam and the comfort, love, and joy we share together. She always tries to relieve my worries and make sure I have whatever I need to be happy. We can simply hold hands and be in each others company and not need anything else. I found myself lying on the gurney today, holding her hand, and listening to the very song that defines that feeling. It was a happy moment.

I’m going to say goodbye to radiation with a fitting tribute to the process. Some of it may make you uncomfortable, but I figure my goal is to be honest and to share my experiences with others in order to remove some of the mystery and fear around cancer treatment. In order to do that, I’ve decided to feature a photo essay from Sam’s perspective. These were taken over my last two sessions and I think they capture what happens and the kind and caring folks who took care of me.

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Waiting to go back for the ct scan. That’s the first thing they do before every treatment session, so they can look at everything and get accurate measurements.

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The tube that they feed the radioactive source through, using a long cord. It gets inserted into the vagina.

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The tube locks into this piece that is secured to the table, to keep the tube from moving.

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Trying to get on the table gracefully.

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The doctor inserts the tube. It also helps to protect the areas they don’t want to fully radiate.

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Chatting about I don’t even remember what, as the doctor gets everything locked into place.

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Ready for my ct scan.

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A lovely photo of my bald melon.

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Sam got to stay in the room with my doctor and the ct tech during my scan.

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Me, being scanned.

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What the ct scans look like on the computer.

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Sam’s view as they transfer me onto the gurney.

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I was then wheeled into the radiation room and had to wait for the physicist to calculate my data and map out everything. It took maybe 20-30 minutes.

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Patiently waiting.

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Each time the physicist came into the room he had this piece of paper in his hand and asked my name and birth date in order to verify that they had the right person. This is my official radiation mugshot.

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Sam and I holding hands while we wait.

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A photo of Sam and I, taken by one of the super friendly radiation team members.

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This is R2-D2, who controls the radiation treatment after everyone else has left the room.

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Connected to R2-D2 and ready to roll.

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While I am inside of this room, everyone else is outside, waiting or monitoring me.

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After the treatment was over, mine were 12-13 minutes each time,  everything was safely removed by the doctor and the nuclear physicist.

This is the area out side of the radiation treatment rooms. You get to ring the bell after your last treatment.

This is the area out side of the radiation treatment rooms. You get to ring the bell after your last treatment.

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Me, playing around with the Geiger-counter and my freshly radiated vagina. We all had a laugh over this.

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Sitting with Steve, the physicist, as he goes over the ct scans and all of the technical information with me. I asked him if I could have a print out of the calculations he did for my last treatment and he went even further and explained it all to me. Awesomeness.

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Here you can see the three views taken during the ct scan.

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My numbers and percentages of radiation received in the area treated.

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Me, happy to be finished and ready to be released back into the wild. I wore this shirt promoting my friend’s barbershop for moral support.

I have to thank everyone who had a hand in treating me. I have to give a special shout out to Steve and Andrew, the physicists who took time out after my last treatment to show me, and describe to me in detail, exactly how they use a ct scan to calculate where the radiation “source” should be placed and how long it should be at each location. Steve showed me that I had 11 points along my vagina where the “source” moved to radiate the tissue. He also showed me the three views of my pelvic area that were captured via ct scan. It was pretty darned cool. The four of us also spent some extra time nerding out about nuclear energy, radioactive waste, Chernobyl, Hanford, and so on. I explained to the guys that I have a fascination with such things, since I was in high school during the Cold War era and have created some artwork relating to the subject. It was awesome. I mean, how often do you get to hang out with nuclear physicists and talk about such things in detail?

Lastly, I want to say that it was fitting that the first song I heard during my last session, while waiting on the gurney, was this one. Part of my accepting and working through all of this is believing that having cancer is just another step in my “taking the long way”. It’s a learning experience and most of all, a growth experience. I’m going to leave you with this. Feel free to sing along.

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That Time I Met Lucinda Williams

I love and admire many female musicians. They are varied and work in different genres – rock, folk, country, pop, and even a few rap artists. This summer I was fortunate enough to see a number of them as part of my “bucket list” – Tori Amos, The Indigo Girls, Joan Baez, Amy Ray, Melissa Etheridge, and Lucinda Williams. This past week, Lucinda Williams made an in-store appearance at Music Millennium in Portland, OR and I was fortunate enough to get to see her again.

They had announced on the radio that there were 200 guaranteed tickets available, if you came in and bought Lucinda’s new cd or album. We stopped by and bought the cd and I received my ticket for the appearance. The day of the event, I had a radiation session and by the time I arrived at MM I was feeling a little bit off and not up to standing in line outside. I asked the guys at the counter if they had somewhere I could sit down and they graciously offered me the barber’s chair in the shop to hang out in. One of the employees told me his wife is currently battling cancer and he completely understood. After I sat in the chair, another gentleman stopped by to tell me they had arranged for me to have a chair upstairs for Lucinda’s performance. I hadn’t been there before for an event, so I wasn’t sure where that was, but I thanked him.

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My ticket and cd.

Just as they started letting people into the store, I was led up the stairs and shown my spot for the evening – a chair diagonally across from where Lucinda would be performing. I was in awe and thanked them again. “I think it’s safe to say you’ll have the best seat of the night”, the gentleman told me. I couldn’t really argue. Everyone else was down on the lower level, looking up at the performance area. There were a few photographers and other folks upstairs near me, but I had an unobstructed view. Another employee stopped by and told me he needed to make Lucinda’s tea. I looked next to me and there was a teapot, mug, and selection of teas. Pretty darned cool, right? I heard cheering and then looked down to see Lucinda walking up the stairs. She took her place, with her guitar, and began to play.

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Lu’s tea.

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The view from my seat.

She played new songs, older songs, covers, and at one point I found myself crying, just a little bit. She was playing “Joy”, a song that usually gets me riled up, but one that I have connected to on a deeper level during treatment.

The sound was awesome and I couldn’t believe how everything had worked out. I was so grateful to be there, in that moment. I knew there was a possibility that I would be able to meet her after the show, but I knew I would start crying and look like a babbling idiot. Next to me were pieces of scratch paper and a pen. I decided to write a note for her, just in case I did get to meet her. I told her that her music had helped me to get through chemo and thanked her. I said a few other things and then added some drawings, one of a unicorn in a boat, gazing at the moon, and one of a little bird chirping. I folded up the piece of paper and placed it on my copy of her cd. I went back to enjoying the music and then the show was over.

The set list.

The set list.

Lucinda's guitar and such.

Lucinda’s guitar and such.

They announced that Lucinda would come down for a meet and greet and I realized that I would be at the end of the line. There was no hurry. She moved past me and downstairs, so I walked over to where her guitar and things were in order to take a photograph. I eventually made it downstairs and got into line. The employees continued to be very sweet and kind and checked to make sure I was doing okay. The line moved very slowly and I’m not even sure how long it took to get up to the front – at least an hour.

I handed my cell phone to the fella who was taking photos for people and when I got up to the counter Lucinda smiled at me. I wasn’t sure what to say, so I handed her the note and told her I couldn’t say what I needed to say or I would start crying. She asked if she could read the  note and I said yes. She read it and looked at me with that look, you know the one, and I got teary-eyed. She said something to me about if I cried, then she would cry and she said, “You’re beating it though, right?” I replied, “Yes, these are happy tears”. She then came around the counter to hug me. It wasn’t one of those fake hugs, it was a genuine, “I care” hugs that I often get from my friends. It was pretty awesome. We then took a few more photos together and then she signed my cd. There were a few people still in line behind me, so I told her I would get a mug for her out of my car.

Our first moment meeting one another.

Our first moment meeting one another.

Lu, reading my note.

Lu, reading my note.

The hug. <3

The hug. ❤

All smiles.

All smiles.

I went out to my car and chose three mugs for her to choose from. When I got back into the store, I placed them on the counter and she chose the green monster with the singing bluebird. Somehow, I knew that would be the one she would want. I said goodbye and thanked her and the employees one more time. The fella who had told me about his wife shook my hand and we wished each other the best with everything. It was an evening of kindness, amazing music, and compassion – the name of one of Lucinda’s new songs that I love. If you get a chance, check out her new cd/album. It’s a wonderful collection. I can’t wait until she comes back to Portland in February. ❤

She chose the mug in the middle. I kinda knew that was the one.

She chose the mug in the middle. I kinda knew that was the one.

Radiation 101

Let’s talk about radiation treatments. This is my description of the first visit, just after it happened. I wanted to write about it before I forgot any little details. –

“I was led back to the room where the ct scans are done. I changed into a gown and was then positioned on a table with a metal piece near my crotch area. My doctor had previously explained to me that there was a tube they insert into the vagina that protects the area and helps them guide the radiation up to the top, where they want to radiate. Once the tube is inserted, it attaches to the metal piece, so it won’t move. I was rolled into place for the ct scan, which only took a couple of minutes. The scan helps them to know where my bladder and bowels are in relation to the tube, so they can try to avoid radiating those bits. My doctor made sure to ask me if I had filled up my bladder before coming in. Apparently, a full bladder pushes the bladder and bowels away from the area of the vagina where they want to radiate. It helps prevent any unwanted damage, which I am all for.

After that, they transferred me to a gurney by sliding the whole piece I was laying on. It’s the easiest part of the process and rather ingenious. By doing it that way, you and the tube do not move. I was wheeled into another room and on the way I was asked what kind of music I like to listen to. When we got into the room I was presented with a book of cds and I ended up going with Sheryl Crow’s Greatest Hits. It was explained to me that there would be a short period of time before the actual treatment, so the physicist on staff could look at the ct scan and do the calculations of where to place the radiation. It’s pretty impressive, really.

The cd started playing and I was left alone in the room. “All I Wanna Do is Have Some Fun” started playing and I found myself singing along in order to distract myself from everything else. Suddenly, I was crying. I can’t explain it. I wasn’t sad, or mad, or feeling bad about the treatment process. After going though surgery, chemo, blood transfusions, the white blood cell booster shot, and everything else for five months, the radiation treatment was nothing. I just had to stop singing and refocus my thoughts to get the crying to stop. Maybe I’m relieved to almost be finished. Perhaps I can’t believe everything that’s happened. It also could be all of the experiences I’ve been through since May, including the stories people have shared and the many friends and strangers I’ve had heartfelt conversations with. The answer is I don’t know. I’m carrying some emotional baggage and it’s only natural to experience unpredictable emotional responses sometimes. I’m okay with that.

After approximately 15 minutes the physicist came in and told me the math was done and we were ready to go. It would take approximately 12 minutes from start to finish and I wouldn’t feel anything. My doctor came in and set up the machine that feeds the radiation into the vagina. They then stepped out of the room and I could hear the machine (the radiation assistant) making some minor noises. I just concentrated on listening to “If It Makes You Happy” and “The Difficult Kind” and trying to not think about the radiation that was currently in my body. When the treatment was over, they returned into the room and removed everything. I was given my clothes and was taken to the restroom to both pee and to change. As I walked out it was surreal to think that I’d been through that whole process. I only have to do it three more times and then I’ll be free. That is all of the motivation I need to make it through this.”

The ct scan room.

The ct scan room.

My file.

My file.

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The radiation assistant.

The view from my gurney as I wait.

The view from my gurney as I wait.

I have now had my second treatment and will have my third this Friday. I listened to The Shins on my second visit and there were no tears. They told me another patient had asked them for The Shins and they didn’t have it, so I brought in a cd of Wincing the Night Away for their collection. I told them to give the other patient a high-5 from me and to tell her to enjoy listening to it during treatment. My last will be next Wednesday and then I will be free from treatment unless my doctor finds anything new on future scans. I’ve decided to listen to The Indigo Girls and Lucinda Williams during my last two visits. Those ladies have gotten me through a lot of rough patches and it seems appropriate as I finish treatment.

I’ve experienced some side effects from the radiation, mostly fatigue and some cramping, which feels odd since I no longer have cramps associated with a period. In comparison with chemo side effects, it isn’t bad. I just want to feel healthy and in control of my body again, at least as much as I am normally in charge of it and how it functions. I want to go to the gym. I want to eat vegetables again. So many things. I have patiently endured everything that has come my way, but am a bit itchy about getting back on track. It will happen when it’s supposed to and I’m okay with that.