Still Life, With Cancer is dedicated to the idea that even–maybe especially?–in the face of a cancer diagnosis, life, with all its challenges, griefs, joys, and beauty, still goes on. Read more About the Blog
In September of 2015, I was a forty-something first-time bride marrying the love of my life. In June 2016, almost nine months to the day after celebrating our wedding, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Read more About Me
One of the biggest issues with receiving radiation treatments, especially on sensitive areas like the chest and neck, is radiation dermatitis. To that end, it’s really important to take care of your skin as best you can through the process, and apply oils, creams, or lotions that soothe the skin and ease the burn.
I have what is perhaps a complicated routine. Based in large part on advice offered on MarnieClark.com, as well as some additional research I conducted, I start with a layer of calendula oil (from the marigold plant), followed by aloe vera, then apply organic hemp oil with a few drops of lavender essentail oil mixed in, and end with cortisone cream. I also have some lotion called Radiaguard, made especially for radiation patients, that contains lidocaine for when I get really uncomfortable.
I’ve been lucky not to need too much lidocaine, but just yesterday I hit a point where the red areas on my skin had become so defined that you can tell exactly where the radiation is being administered. Since I’m getting one dose in the super-clavicle area, I also have an “exit dose” going out my back, so there’s a well-defined red square there I have to treat, too.
Four oils and lotions, sometimes five, every day, three times a day. I could have used something like Aquaphor, but even my non-radiated skin doesn’t respond well to petroleum-based products. At my appointment last week my doc said my skin looked better than a lot of women’s did at that point, so I think natural oils and cortisone were a good choice for me.
I did have to buy a couple cheap underlayers to absorb excess oil and keep it off my clothes, but if I can avoid any serious blistering and keep my skin in shape for the next steps of reconstructive surgery, those couple of throw-away t-shirts will be worth it.
Okay, so I look a little tipsy and my tag is sticking up (I told you they made us wear the capes backwards). Maybe I’m just drunk with happiness to be drawing ever closer to the end of this process.
That’s my spine on the screen there. In addition to my radiation treatments, I also have what’s called “on board imaging” each day, The technicians take two x-rays to be sure my body is precisely positioned to receive those 6 million photons in exactly the right place. Once a week they take an additional set of x-rays as another check. I wasn’t kidding either when I said I feel like I ought to be glowing by now.
The whole process is incredibly high-tech. There are physicists on staff who use preliminary CAT scans to “map” each patient’s dose at the beginning. The delivery is controlled in part by my breathing—I have to watch a screen inside the treatment room and breathe in until I hit a defined target area; only then is the radiation is delivered.
The five screens above are located outside the actual treatment room, and they are used by the technicians to administer my treatments remotely and monitor the machine and me during the process. The first time I saw the bank of them I was reminded of the control room of a spaceship in a sci-fi flick—until I noticed my name at the top of every monitor. It’s not how I would have preferred to make my screen debut.
No, I don’t receive my radiation treatments standing out under a tree (how much more pleasant a prospect…), or while listening to pop music from 1990.
I do, however, assume this position for treatment each weekday: arms stretched above my head, the left cocked at a lower, tighter angle due to ongoing mobility issues, my head lifted and turned to the right both to watch the breathing monitor that governs my dosages and to expose the lymph node basin just above my clavicle, all the better to zap it.
Standing up in the position, as I am here, I look like I’m vogue-ing, a la Madonna.
Lying on the table beneath the machine, I feel more like I’m a TV crime show victim awaiting a chalk outline.
It can feel a little grim there on the table, centered in the red line cross-hairs of the laser positioning beams, listening to the whines and whirs of my radiation being delivered.
So, all of my doctors know this view: me, holding a journal, my mouth open, asking the latest in a string of just-one-more questions.
They may sometimes wonder if there’s anything in my journal -except- questions. But each of my practitioners, including my radiation oncologist Dr. Buck, has answered each query patiently and thoroughly.
We’ll have one more consultation next week. And I’ll probably have a few last questions. 🙂
Things have been a little crazy lately, between daily radiation, a brief work trip, and a non-blog writing project with a fast-approaching deadline. I am glad to report that, including today, I am down to my last 10 radiation treatments! Inspired by a friend’s comment on Facebook, I thought I’d do something a little different this week, and post a pic each day to mark the countdown. Though I will still have quite a ways to go with reconstruction and full recovery, concluding radiation feels like a significant milestone, as it marks the close of my cancer treatment. After so many months, that feels pretty major.
I’ll soon be back to regular posts (I have a backlog of stories to share, including a more in-depth reflection on radiation, and more books and hats. Always more hats.)
My father taught for well over forty years in the public school system; he started with a few years of high school in Texas, and then, for the bulk of his career, taught chemistry at a community college in Georgia. He’s retired now, and tomorrow is his birthday. In honor of the contributions he and all other smart, dedicated, and hard-working teachers have made to the education and growth of our young people, I’m featuring his vintage gray Stetson in today’s Heads Up! post.
The hat itself testifies to the kind of opportunity and success access to public education offers. My dad, Garry, grew up on a farm in rural Texas, and he was the first in his family to go to college. When he graduated in 1964 from what was then East Texas State University, his parents gifted him the Stetson as a graduation gift.
According to the receipt, still tucked in the box, the hat cost $12, the equivalent of around $94 today. After graduating, he put his degree right back to work in the service of educating others.
I remember him wearing the Stetson on occasion during my childhood. When I was in middle school, we discovered that it fit me, too. Both my father and I have (at least judging by the general inventory of the hat industry) unusually small heads. So it was a kick to discover that I could sport his Stetson.
Having grown up in the Southeast, I never had my parents’ bent for Western style (though I am partial to boots of all kinds). To give the Stetson a little feminine flair I added a (removable) floral band and paired it with a cozy blue wrap over a mixed calico-print dress and jeans.
According to the official Stetson website, the company was founded in 1865 by John Batterson Stetson, who, after traveling out west as a young man, returned east to open a hat-making shop in Philadelphia. His father had also been in the trade, and passed his skills on to his son. With an initial investment of somewhere between $60 and $100 (accounts vary), Stetson finally struck a chord with his “Boss of the Plains” design in 1869 and in 1870 purchased property for his own factory. After his death in 1901 and well into the 1950s, the company designed and manufactured a wide variety of styles, including hats for the military during the war.
When hats began to drift out of daily fashion in the 1960s, it was President Lyndon B. Johnson’s influence that encouraged the company’s turn toward Western styles. That proved a long-term lucrative market. Manufacturing moved to Missouri, and movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark helped keep the hats popular. The current Stetson factory is in Garland, Texas.
Changing up the band of my Dad’s hat to a narrow one in black, rust, and gold makes the Stetson the perfect accessory for a black poncho, jeans, and equestrian-style boots.
So here’s a hats off to all our educators, especially those like my Dad who’ve dedicated their entire careers to public education. Thank you for your service. We are indebted to you and will continue to need your wisdom, guidance, and strength.
And happy birthday, Dad! Thank you for the loan of your wonderful hat.
∼ Beautiful, quirky hats make me happy. The “Heads Up!” series is a reminder to keep my (still bald-ish) head up, to pay attention to the good in the world, and to encourage myself and others facing a tough road that it’s possible to find the fun in even the most challenging circumstances. ∼
My regular readers (what a gift, to think I have some regular readers!) might have noticed that I have only been posting once a week of late, instead of twice. I seem to be experiencing a bit of writer’s block, not in the sense that I don’t have plenty of material (in Cancerland, there is never a shortage of material), but in the sense that I can’t seem to get myself to sit down and focus long enough to do the work.
I think it’s because I’m angry.
Anger is, of course, one of the five stages of grief (cf: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance). While I’ve certainly been grieving (my identity as a “healthy, active” person, my breasts, my mobility, my peace of mind), I don’t think I’ve spent seven months stuck in denial. Which makes me think those stages are rather like descriptions of the writing process (cf: planning, drafting, revising, editing, publishing)–neither grief nor writing ever follows a nice, neat linear narrative, even though we talk about both as if they did.
One of my friends recently noted that she liked the anger stage of grief because it was at least galvanizing for her. I feel, at present, more paralyzed. Overwhelmed. I’m angry that all the treatments make me feel worse than the disease ever has. I’m angry that I’m over half a year in, and I still have at least half a year to go. I’m angry that while I’m presumably cured, just in case I’m not really cured (sneaky little bastards, those cancer cells), I have to have 2 x-rays and 6 million photons of radiation shot into my body five days a week for five weeks. I’m angry that not one of seemingly hundreds of studies on creams, lotions, and gels have resulted in any definitive conclusions about what really does and doesn’t protect your skin from radiation, making the risk of long-term damage (for me=potential issues with reconstruction) ultimately an individual genetic crapshoot.
And then I feel guilty.
Because while it sucks to have cancer, I am getting excellent medical care. The chemo worked! I am healing! I can afford to hit my cancer yet one more time with radiation because I have the gifts of time and good insurance–not everyone does. My surgeons, doctors, nurses, and technicians are skilled, smart, supportive. My husband is amazing, and friends and family and even strangers encourage me everyday.
So I get that I’m lucky, and I’m profoundly grateful.
But I’m still angry.
Having been forcefully reminded just how precious and precarious is this life, I’m angry with how badly people treat one another these days. And I don’t just mean in comment threads on social media, though the vitriol online makes me shiver. From our highest government leaders to our neighbors down the street, it seems like we’ve abandoned empathy and simple acts of kindness almost everywhere. One recent example: Roanoke has a number of rather short C-shaped on/off ramps connected to the freeway that runs through town. Yesterday, driving between appointments, I moved over into the left lane at one such ramp to let two cars merge. I needed to gain access back into the right lane almost immediately, as my exit was coming up, so I put on my blinker, thinking the silver VW Bug I’d moved over for would likely return the favor. Instead, the driver accelerated to where he was just close enough that I couldn’t move over safely–and then stayed there, keeping pace, even after I tried accelerating myself to pull ahead of him. I had to brake and go around him from behind at the last second, or miss my exit. He smiled smugly as he passed me on the right.
Did the young man have something against middle-aged women? My plaid fuchsia hat? My “animal friendly” license plate? Was he just pissed because my blue Cube is way cuter than his Bug? Seriously: why the deliberate act of meanness?
It’s possible (though I think unlikely) he was simply oblivious, but even so: in this age of near-permament distraction, if we start using distractedness as a justifiable excuse for unkindness, we’re in deep, deep trouble.
Blowing my horn and flipping him off (oh, yes, she did) didn’t make me feel much better. There’s something else that I think will. But I need your help.
Now, I don’t know about you, but lately I’ve seen so many negative news reports alone that if I were to try to counter them five to one, I’d never be able to keep up. But how about two to one?
This is my Do Good to Feel Good challenge to you: counter negatives you experience (or create) with double the positives. Embrace the 2:1 Kindness Ratio.
If someone is a jerk to you in traffic, do two good deeds toward other drivers to offset it.
If someone insults you, pay two compliments or offer kind words to two people, as a kindness-counter-gesture.
If you read and share articles about scary and frustrating things happening in our government and world via social media (and I think we must, to stay aware and informed, even, or especially, when truths are hard; we must also vet all sources, and resist fake news!), then also make an effort to read and share a few stories of good news, too. (If nothing else, there’s always cute cat photos.)
Of course, the best way to curtail unkindness is to make sure you yourself aren’t initiating it. So be civil. Period. Pay attention to those around you, and practice choosing empathy first. Would the young man in the Bug have been nicer if he’d known I was heading to radiation treatment for cancer? I don’t know–but none of us should need a reason to be nice. Your mama, like mine, no doubt taught you that things like rudeness, name-calling, and stereotyping are ugly, and she was right. So stop it. And if you goof up, pick your two positive actions and make them happen.
Perhaps anger really does galvanize one to action. But anger is exhausting. So let’s all try to dig ourselves out of this karmic hole we’re in. Two to one in favor of kindness: is that a bargain, or what?