Today I receive my first dose of radiotherapy. I have been in some denial about how scary that is. When I finished the chemotherapy all the nurses assured me that, compared with chemo, radiotherapy will be “a walk in the park.”
Last night I found myself sobbing uncontrollably for no apparent reason. Nick just stroked my tummy until I was calm again. I have to say that, even though he insists on stashing his dirty socks and pants behind the bedroom door, it is nice to have him here with me. Being alone at night with fear has been hard at times.
I pay a visit to Claire, the wonderful Craniosacral Osteopath. “All this worrying has locked up your left side,” she informs me. As she places her fingers on either side of my jaw I can feel the tension.
Forty minutes later a refreshed and relaxed Lily and a slightly dishevelled Nick (he’s got a cold) set off for Harley Street. In the Macmillan centre lovely Anna greets us. We help ourselves to tea and biscuits. “How are you feeling?” asks Anna. “Honestly, I’ve been a bit stressed about the radiotherapy,” I reply. “Oh don’t worry,” says Anna, “it will be a walk in the park.”
Shortly my name is called and we take a short walk, not to the park but to the basement where they keep all the big medical machinery. Opposite the waiting area is a door labelled Cyber Knife – no admittance. “I wonder what a Cyber Knife is?” ruminates Nick. A man in the next chair pipes up “I’ve been wondering that since I’ve been coming here. I’ve seen people go in that door but I’ve never seen anyone come out.” Just then an Australian voice speaks my name. The voice emanates from an attractive young woman whose name badge says Ivana – Radiography Team Leader. She leads the Lily and Nick team into a small room and runs through a list of key points that I need to know about the radiotherapy procedure.
Apparently each session will take about 15 minutes. The actual zapping will take about two minutes. Most of that time will be taken up with getting me into exactly the right position so that I receive a very targeted dose of radiation to just the correct area, that is to say my left breast. Ivana shows me a CT scan of my breast with lots of coloured lines drawn on it, somewhat like isobars on a weather map. This is a plan devised by Dr Coulter, mapping exactly how much radiation will be received in each part of my breast.
It is very important to be precisely positioned so that the radiation doesn’t go off course and fry one's heart, or indeed one’s head. For this reason the radiographers have previously tattooed some small spots on my chest that they can line up on.
Ivana outlines the possible side effects: fatigue and sunburn-like redness that may make one’s skin dry, sore and itchy. But generally “a piece of cake” compared to chemo.
After Ivana has explained everything she asks me if I have any questions. As usual I can’t think of any. As usual, Nick pipes up: “I have a question. Why is it that everyone who works here is Australian?”
With the Q&A session concluded we are introduced to a second radiographer, named Lily like me. Lily is not Australian. She’s a Kiwi. Lily guides us back through the labyrinth of underground corridors. I glance nervously at the Cyber Knife room. Then we arrive at the underground radiotherapy chamber. Outside is a control panel of computer screens with all sorts of scientific graphs and numbers displayed on them. Inside is a gargantuan machine looming over a small bench. “Does it have a name?” asks Nick. “No," replies Lily, "but we think it’s male.” Nick immediately christens it Bruce.
I strip to the waist behind a small curtain and emerge half clothed. I wonder why I always wish to disrobe behind a screen, even though all assembled onlookers will see my body in the next instant? Perhaps the act of undressing is more revealing than just being naked.
Wearing only black leggings, boots and a pink skull-print headscarf, I climb onto the table. Lily and her colleague Tara (an English nurse!) arrange my arms to rest into a set of stirrups above my head. “How are you feeling?” enquires Lily. “A bit intimidated,” I reply. “Well you look fantastic,” exclaims Nick.
Next come the green laser beams, strafing my body this way and that. The two radiographers reel off numbers to one another whilst they press buttons that move the bench up, down and to one side and the other. Bruce rotates its big eye around my torso. Nick strokes my leg as they make their calculations. It’s very soothing. Once the two radiographers are satisfied that they’ve prodded me into the correct position and cross checked their readings, everyone leaves the room. Bruce whirrs into action. It beeps and then makes some clicking noises, rotates then beeps again. “That’s it,” says Lily as she re-enters the room.
“That’s it,” I repeat. I get dressed and we go home, stopping by Ainsworth’s to pick up some of their expensive Emergency Cream. It contains calendula, hypericum and other flower extracts. I’ve decided to use that rather than the aqueous cream that the hospital provides. I’m told that fresh Aloe Vera can also be helpful. I will have to find out where to buy a plant.
“What’s for dinner?” asks Nick as we cross our threshold. “Well there’s still some of that delicious Plaice from Deal. How about I fry that up and make some brown rice and salad?” I offer. “Yum,” replies Nick, with feeling. I pull my boots off and lie down on the bed. I feel Nick’s hand holding mine. I feel myself diving, diving into a dark pool of sleep.
A long time later Nick is shaking my shoulder. “Lily, it’s half-past-nine.” I stagger groggily into the living room. There on the table are two plates filled with freshly fried plaice, brown rice and salad. I’m so happy.