You are beautiful: A brief encounter with radiation therapy
If you were ever to find yourself assigned to Linear Accelerator 9* at the Stanford Cancer Center you would be sure to notice that the faceplate surrounding a drum-shaped apparatus above you has a broad surface that creates a frame around the part of the apparatus the beam comes through. You might say that on this machine the frame has been allowed to become a kind of canvas. On its flat surface people have affixed about a dozen stickers.
Flat on my back twice a day, I observed this assemblage, as though I were standing in front of an artwork on a wall. Only I was prone on my back and my arm was fitted up above my head so the transverse beams could reach the right zone of my breast.
My gaze alternated between scanning this surface and closing my eyes. Without moving my head when my eyes were open, I could freely roam the surface of this housing that had been transformed by strangers whose names I didn’t know. I learned the names of the nurses who helped position me. I was only there in Linear Accelerator 9 for a week but circumstances like this create quick camaraderie.
These nurses would slide me over a few centimeters at a time until I was in line with the sensors. When they left the room music played. I wore a gown. To my surprise, it matched the color of my toenails that I had selected a few weeks before. I had wondered why I had picked that color. It wasn’t until day one of my radiation that I saw how well it matched the robe I changed into for the treatment.
The machine and I were one working system: human+machine. Although I did not fully understand just when it happened, with the rise and fall of my diaphragm, I was triggering the beam. As I took each breath, it changed the depth of my vital organs. A sensor on my stomach, fitted onto a lightweight cube, metered the dose.
The system was calibrating the relative air volume of my lungs so that my heart would be in an optimal position as far away from the beam as possible. At that certain sweet spot range, my body could more safely be exposed to the beam and its steady stream of particles.
I felt like I had entered the realm of science fiction. I just breathed as normally as I could and trusted that the settings, which had been programmed and integrated into the treatment modeling, were properly configured. I was not worried. I had abandoned worrying.
Each treatment made me more aware of what was in the room. Each day I looked at the beam, and it looked down at me. I took note of the sounds of the machine; they were not particularly harsh. I next became interested in the flashing light that went on during the times the technicians left the room; I saw that the words BEAM ON were printed on the illuminated sign.
And each day the radiology nurses counted down my treatments; I was not someone who would be with them for very long, and my countdown began almost before I had any sense of a beginning.
By Wednesday, I was half done. By Thursday I was one more day to go. I suppose because this room had been a kind of place I was passing through, I was urgently aware of how as real as it was to me while I was in it, at some point its features would fade from memory.
In this room I had hoped for the best, trusted that I was doing the right thing, kept as still as possible, tried to keep my spirits level, made small talk. In this room my private experience — was also an encounter with a medical robot of sorts — albeit one controlled by a team of human caretakers.
This impersonal and sterile room had housed me and cradled me for just a little while. I had entered the doors each day with resignation. Once I had decided to get radiation, there remained one thing left to do: show up.
While I did as much research as possible, finally, radiation seemed a less and less toxic idea to me. This so-called standard of treatment became a part of my life, written onto my calendar, scheduled into my life, and ultimately, part of my natural history like a flood, a fire or the geological record.
I was not one of those with an advanced stage of disease, yet knowing there would be so many coming after me, so many who would do precisely what I was doing only for many more weeks than me, I felt one of them simply because I had lain exactly where they would lay.
As I looked up at the stickers affixed on the frame around the beam so would they. Who had left those stickers? The one that said: My oncologist can beat up your oncologist. Who brought in Fun in the Sun or You Are Beautiful? What about the lucky clover leaf? Were they ok? Were they cured? I was just Stage 0. What were they?
These small signs of life were achingly poetic to me. They reminded me how graffiti and even art, can be reduced to simple marks to say we were “there.” Even anonymously, we were there.
I think it was easier for me do what I was doing because of the patients who had put the stickers on the faceplate of Linear Accelerator 9.
So, on day five, in the morning I asked if I could bring in a sticker. It was approved. My husband brought the box of stickers we keep around the house, remnants of our daughter’s sticker crafting days. We had a lot of options. Just before my last treatment, I went through the box and found two ordinary, prosaic stickers. I put on my gown for the last time (it matched my toenails perfectly) and lay down. Before I left, I put my stickers on the linear accelerator: the frame.
And if you happen to find yourself in Linear Accelerator 9 you will know that the Harry Potter sticker (wand in hand) that was me. I was there. Lumos! And also Elmo (because Elmo loves you had come to mind.) These were the little marks I left behind.
The toenail polish will come off. The healthy cells in my body will heal and the diseased ones will die, unable to repair their damaged DNA. And unless they scrape the stickers off, they will be there for whomever enters that room. And perhaps they will wonder who left them there.
Out of context, a dozen stickers would not be much to look at. The hallways of the Stanford Cancer Center that lead you to these treatment rooms are where the real art is. Framed, signed, meant to soothe. Science is even telling us the right art can improve healing outcomes.
But to me as I lay prone in a room of high-tech steel and circuit boards harnessing the power of accelerated photons in the crosshairs of that beam to look up and see the evidence of others who knew what this was like? That was beautiful.
* A linear accelerator increases the velocity of charged subatomic particles, subjecting them to a series of oscillating electric potentials along a linear beamline. It is used for many purposes including in radiation therapy prescribed for cancer treatment.
*Thank you as well to those who help make the world more beautiful at www.you-are-beautiful.com. *