Third and last radiation treatment…
“Shrink and disappear, little wretch!!!” Message to the tumor from my niece, Mary.
The way it went for me: Jean drove us in the van to Dublin where the Kaiser radiation oncology unit is. The first time in Dublin we got there early, had a snack, hung out in the van, and went to the cancer center. The second time we took a sandwich and went to a park that Jean found via google and had a picnic and a nap with a cool breeze playing over us. The third time was like the second. I love it so much that Jean likes picnics and naps together like this. ♥
At the cancer center I check in, wait a short while (meanwhile, Jean was running errands, walking), and they take me back, through the corridors, through the massively heavy 4” thick door into the room. I lie down on the plastic mold of my shoulders/torso (made on the previous planning visit) on the plastic tray and grasp the handles over my head. The radiation therapists move me in small increments until several bony landmarks of my body are aligned with the machine that will beam the radiation into my body, into the tumor. They leave the room and it’s just the machine and me. The plastic tray and I slide into the machine and I’m lying still, breathing however it is I’m breathing (it seems a little fast to me) and there are beams of light (red and blue? I’m not sure) and some things like appendages – to my left a flat thing, a blank plastic rectangle about 24” x 14” and to my right, a round thing, maybe 22” across with a ~8” glass square in the center like a window and there’s a third thing like a rectangular box and those three things slowly, silently rotate around me, sometimes it seems on different axes. So I lie there, very still and after about 15 minutes the machine powers down and the plastic tray and mold and I slide out. The RT is there. “Do you need help sitting up?” “Yes, thank you.” Experientially, it seemed like nothing happened except a little discomfort. Actually a lot happened. Beams of seriously high energy that breaks the DNA of the cancer cells and thus their ability to replicate/grow/spread.
The first time I was irradiated one of the radiation therapists and I talked for awhile. She told me that school for radiation techs takes about two years. School for radiation therapists is an additional 1.5 years, so 3.5 years to be there, getting it all right every time. I used to teach that part of being a patient was literally giving your body to another person/people and that trust was essential. True. The therapist was helpful to me – moving me a little farther along in the process of integrating these new realities, becoming little more connected. I felt like she was a truth-teller. Can’t do any better than that.
For about 6 or 8 months I took Phana for weekly chemotherapy infusions and related at Presbyterian and MD Anderson. At Presbyterian when someone finished a course of chemo they rang a bell and everyone clapped. “They’ll never ring that bell for me,” she said.
Even caught early, with good odds of surviving it’s still realistically pretty heavy shit to have lung cancer. I feel almost dramatic when I say that, but you know, it is pretty heavy.
Many years ago I had a patient who had triplegia as a result of a radiation injury. He walked into the hospital and came home paralyzed in three of his four limbs. He lived with a prostitute and some other people in a shotgun house on the frontage road of a freeway. (A shotgun house is a cheaply built house, narrow, one room after another so that a shotgun fired through the front door would clear the whole house.). There was a bedpan and they put him on it and because the people in the house didn’t know anything and he couldn’t feel anything they left him on it for a couple of days. I got there and we got him off, but the blood supply to the tissue at his sacrum had been cut off for several days and over the next week or so, he developed a large, deep decubitus ulcer at his sacrum. I kept it as clean as I could with some help from the woman. She was a heavy drinker (they all were) and that and the nature of her work meant that she was gone or indisposed a lot. She was a nice person and I dug her, but she wasn’t dependable.
Several times when I was there the man was watching a TV program about sewing called Sew What’s New, which seemed odd since the program was hosted by a man all tricked out in pastels and lace and the live TV audience was all older white women and the patient was from streets, maybe pimping the woman, who brought her tricks through his room and on into her room. The ulcer/infection went into his bone and he became septic and died.
A year or so later I saw the woman on the street. We talked for awhile. She still seemed nice and she still had that unpleasantly sweet alcoholic smell.
My friend Joyce had 10 radiation treatments a year or so ago. Plus some other stuff. She’s doing fine. No evidence of recurrence. I know I’m getting off lightly, so far.
When I was in my early 60s I began to look around, thinking about what I would do with the rest of my life. One answer was already clear: I would continue backpacking as long as I was able. The more time I could spend in the wilderness, the better. Wyoming’s Wind River Mountains became my place. I was in the Titcomb Basin four times, along the lakes, to the foot of the glaciers, in the alpine. The alpine, higher than any tree can grow, like magic to me. The Cirque of the Towers, the Highline Trail, Jean Lakes, Knapsack Col, Twin Glacier, snow, ice, rock, milky glacier run-off water, air, tiny alpine flowers, on and on. Also Big Bend, Sangre de Cristo Mountains, New Mexico, and more.
Another answer was to keep on traveling as long as we could. A typical trip was tickets from Dallas to San Francisco to see David to Hong Kong to Hanoi and 6 weeks later return from Bangkok to HK, SF, and home to Dallas. During that 6 weeks we’d ride buses, trains, and planes to Sapa, Hue, Saigon, Phnom Penh, Luang Prabang, Chiang Mai, Bangkok, etc. After Leslie passed away, Jean and I traveled to NYC, Barcelona, Granada, all over Wyoming, Colorado, and of course, California.
I also reconnected to my hippie roots through connecting to psychedelic medicine and to the psytrance scene. Talk about blessings! Try taking this in: I’m sitting with Jeff, my best friend since the war in Vietnam – we’re by a dirt dance floor somewhere deep in a forest in East Texas. We’re rolling very, very strong, I’m sitting next to a man I’ve loved since 1966, the music is loud, people dancing, dancing, I’m dancing, the stars above, pounding music through the night, into the day, and into the next night, and along the way I took the music in and was experientially connected to the psychedelic trance scene. The connection deepened over time and I joined Atrium Obscurum, a crew that was putting on forest gatherings in Texas. I went to gatherings in Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arkansas. Sometimes I taught classes on the end of life, PTSD, and psychedelic medicine. It was an amazing time in the reality of the global underground.
When I finished my course of radiation, the nurse asked if I wanted to ring the bell. I said, no thanks – in tribute to Phana and because (so far) I’m getting off very lightly.