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Friday, July 21, 2017 This Week's Paper

The Lucky Woman’s Guide to Breast Cancer: Basking in the rays, and saying ‘merci’ to Marie Curie


At breakfast at the Antique Sandwich Company, an acquaintance at the next table made my week.

She told me she liked my hair, and asked where I got it cut.

Only a smartass would have replied, “TG oncology.”

Instead, I told her it was the first hair I’d had since February, and that I was delighted to hear it looks deliberate.

It does, she said, adding that I have a nice head – the kind of head that can get away with showing itself off.

A mannerly person, she did not inquire after the elegant scar across the top of said head. Perhaps she feared there was a terrible brain surgery story that went along with it. Nah. I just fell into a rolling yard waste container. That’s the way I used to spend my summers, pulling morning glory and tripping over gardening tools.

Not this year.

These days, I’m basking in the rays: X-rays. Killer beams. Ultimate zappers. I am well into seven weeks of radiation therapy, and making the spirit of Marie Curie happy.

This is the last of the hard laps on what people far more ethereal than I call “the breast cancer journey.” I prefer to call it the uphill cancer slog, in the mud, with sleet and bad shoes.  To recap: Mine began with a biopsy, assorted scans, a lumpectomy, half a year of chemotherapy, a kaleidoscope of sparkling side effects and a brilliant cast of caregivers and fellow sloggers. It featured world-class care and – do not under-rate this – free parking in a garage with a charming attendant. If you are going to get this disease, Tacoma, where docs are linked into the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, is the place to do it.

Here, we get all the expertise, and none of the traffic of Seattle. If the unpleasantness of cancer eroded your patience three months ago, that is a big deal. These days, I enjoy my husband’s gracious willingness to drive, leaving me free to yell, “Don’t roll it, Bozo,” at sluggardly motorists. I should point out that we now travel with the windows, and the radio, up.

In retrospect, we were brilliant to request the first appointment of the day, which means that we are at Tacoma General Hospital’s radiation department every weekday at 8 a.m. This gets us off the road before I would be tempted to yell imprecations at school bus drivers or kids in crosswalks.

But enough of why you should avoid an older gray Scion or an ancient white Town and Country if you know what’s good for your morning commute. On to radiation.

Swift, efficient and pretty much without sensation, it is the opposite of chemo. No one draws your blood. There is no clicking and dripping as bags of meds slip through your port and into your bloodstream. There are no nurses, counselors and buddies spending hours with you.

Instead of a port to guide the therapy, you get tats.

Josh installed mine, based on where the cancer was last seen. No offense to Josh’s skill with the ink, but I will not be getting a full sleeve, or even a hummingbird on my ankle, any time soon. The dots, refreshed with indelible marker as needed, tell the techs where to aim the X-rays.

Instead of a comfy recliner, you lie flat on a narrow stretcher that can go up and down under a large machine. You hang on to two handles above your head, turn your head to one side and keep your feet, secured with a giant rubber band, still. If Sarge, as she is fondly known, puts the Buena Vista Social Club on the sound system, you may wiggle your toes in time with the Cuban rhythm. Beyond that, no moving for the next 10 minutes. Or else.

The machine spends that time waging Sci-Fi war on the area where microscopic cells might still be lurking. Like chemo, the X-rays are not big on discriminating between good cells and those that want to kill you. So you get tired, even beyond tired. (Check.) Your joints hurt. (Check.) Your immune system goes into a fainting spell. (Check.) You get a helluva sunburn. (Looking forward to this.)

And then, wham, you’re done, you’re free to rise from that narrow slat, which means regretting that you haven’t done sit-ups for too long. You’re free to scamper across the hall, get out of your hospital gown,  into your clothes and on with your day. You are free to say to your caregiver-in-chief, the love of your life, “Would you like some of those steamed eggs with cheese at the Antique? Yeah? You drive. I want to concentrate on growing my hair.”

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