What I’ve Learned About Radiation

When Harrison was just 10 months old and experiencing his first summer at the DSC02297beach, I could almost see his brain growing with every new experience, every new vision and sensation. He’d point to the crabs scurrying along the shore, and I’d point back, saying, “Crab.” We’d climb on a boat, and I’d say, “This boat is going to take us on the water.” He’d sit in the sand and watch the gulls diving for food; or throw rocks from the shore and watch them make wrinkles in the water, and I would think about the synapses in his brain making connections, vocabulary, knowledge.

That summer, I thought often of the second graders I used to teach in downtown Manhattan, most of them from Chinese immigrant or Latino welfare families, many of whom had never left the several block radius of the neighborhood. They lived and shopped and schooled and played on the same concrete streets of NYC that were but a fraction of my own experience with the world. At less than one year old, my own child was seeing more of the world than many of them ever would, and I knew that as a result, Harrison’s brain and their brains would grow in very different ways. First as a teacher, then as a parent, I saw how much hands-on experience brings knowledge.

This is what I thought about during my first days on the radiation table (which IImagelie on without the red hospital gown in the picture, but bearing my soul on the internet is one thing; baring my naked chest quite another). Lying on the metal slab, my arms reaching behind my head into the pre-planned mold I now climb into every Monday through Friday, my head turned toward the right, chin slightly up, staring at the ceiling made of those old-school white squares with dozens of grey holes splattered throughout that remind me of depressing office buildings, or in this case, a hospital basement—I would think about Harrison’s first summer at the beach and how much his brain grew: crabfish, seaweed, lifejacket, tides.

Experience brings knowledge, and I would scroll through my expanding information-base. “What new radiation fun-facts have a I learned so far?” I would ask myself (not really thinking any of them were fun, but I’m trying to stay positive, and a little lightness helps).

I’ve learned that radiation therapists carry a ruler, so that every day during set-up, they can measure the distance between the beams and the body parts, making sure everything is aligned correctly.

I’ve learned that those of us who go through radiation bear the pencil-tip sized tattoos that tell the radiation therapist how to line up our bodies each day. And though the tattoos are tiny, they really bother some of us. I simply don’t like the black dot between my two breasts, resting there like a bull’s eye. (Getting my other three tattoos was emotional and much more painful than a shot, but they don’t stare back at me when I look in the mirror, so I don’t find them such a nuisance.)

I’ve learned to lie very, very still and that radiation (at least mine) truly is quick-quick, so that I am usually in and out in 30 minutes or less.

I’ve learned that the beams of green lines this way and that on my upper left quadrant mean the machine is setting up, and that when it seems the machine is doing nothing at all, it is radiating my body.

I’ve learned that I can’t shave my armpit for risk of a nick leading to infection.

I’ve learned that, like chemo, the effects are cumulative. My slowly reddening skin will likely look and feel badly sunburned by the end. (If I’m lucky, that will be the worst that happens to my skin.) And though radiation-fatigue is nothing like chemo-fatigue, I can expect a steady decline by around week four.

I’ve learned a long list of lifetime risks, and I’ve learned that they usually cross my mind when I’m lying on the radiation table, but that otherwise, I am pretty good about not thinking about them.

I’ve learned that radiation dehydrates, which is why they think I was having such severe head rushes—and severe changes in my blood pressure and oxygen levels—every time I sat or stood up. (On doctor’s orders, I spent a couple of days guzzling Gatorade, which seems to have fixed me right up.)

I’ve learned to protect my radiated skin from the sun; that swimming in fresh water may or may not be okay depending on how my skin reacts; that sitting in a wet suit is a no-no, as is going in chlorinated pools. I’ve learned which lotions are okay to use, and to apply them three times a day but not for at least four hours before radiation, or they need to clean it off before my treatment.

I’ve learned once again that kindness buoys me, and that the radiation suite at Cooley Dickinson Hospital is full of kindness, so that most days, I come and go with a smile and a heart full of gratitude, because I am seemingly surrounded by angels who are carrying me through this doozy of a brain-growing experience.

(By the way, I’ve also learned that chemo-brain is real, so it’s a good thing there’s some new knowledge coming in, since it seems a lot of the old knowledge–i.e. my vocabulary along with my ability to orally string words together into coherent sentences–is seeping out.)

6 thoughts on “What I’ve Learned About Radiation

  1. Dear Jen:
    I can relate. I used to lie on the radiation table and meditate while the machine did its slow dance above me. And over the course of weeks made new friends in the waiting room as it was the same group everyday. The radiation will make you tired, but you have endured much worse already and this will be a relative “walk in the park..” Love you!


  2. Hi Jen,

    Boy could I relate to this wonderful post. Radiation is its own beast. I’ve got those tattoos, and they are a reminder of radiation. They make me sad. I also learned that my radiation team was kind and so very caring. I truly felt nurtured, but when radiation ended, I felt lost without that support. Great post!


    1. Thank you for you comment, Beth. Of course I hate that anyone else has to go through what I’m going through, but at the same time, it’s nice to know others can relate. I hope you are safely on the other side– and that you feel less lost and full of support!


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