I guess I should be thankful for so many advancements in science and technology. After all, without the more sensitive and accurate mammogram machines and noisy, clunky MRIs and CTs the doctors might not have discovered the cluster of calcification lurking in my left breast, hiding in wait immediately behind my nipple. I need to be grateful because left unchecked these granules, which in the numerous films of my breast are minute and remind me of the Pleiades (which I have always loved, especially because they are classified as “middle-aged hot B-type stars”) or a faint milky way scattered across a variegated backdrop of blacks, whites and grays could have gone rogue and turned cancerous.
Ductile Carcenoma In Situ – that’s the formal diagnoses, and as far as cancers go, it’s the one to have, or so I’ve been told. Easily treated and almost totally curable if caught early and excised. So the murky scattering of calcification detected via a yearly mammogram and subsequent MRI was surgically removed a few weeks ago; my doctor is so skilled with this kind of procedure that she feels certain I will not even have a scar from the incision but I am not there yet. I look down and still see surgical stitches, odd puckerings and aureolas out of sync, but the aesthetics and symmetry of my breasts is the least of my concerns right now.
The standard treatment for DCIS is a lumpectomy followed by radiation treatment. Some people opt for a focused treatment whereby the doctors insert a metal apparatus to “seed” the area so that the radiation beams can pinpoint the spot with more aggressive X-rays. For me, the doctors recommended whole breast radiation, and I am now in treatment for 7 weeks. I go to the Cancer Center every day, M-F, and try to relax as a giant machine shoots radioactive beams into my effected tissue in an effort to kill the DNA of the potentially hazardous cells, ensuring – hopefully – that there will be no recurrence.
Even though I know the treatment is relatively safe and necessary, and the machines are state-of-the-art and designed to minimize risks, and that the doctors/technicians who have done the calculations and work in teams to set me up on the machine are caring and competent…even though I know all of these things, I still experience fear and cannot help but feel small and powerless and somewhat in awe of the machines and technology that fill the space and are being used to eradicate the cells in my breast. In the treatment room, there are dozens of computers and apparatuses that whir and beep and emit strange red lights. The techs have tried to make it a welcoming place with music playing and a cheery lighted picture of blossoming trees placed in the ceiling, just over the machine where I lie back and wait for directions as I am lined up, the tiny tattooes inked into my skin showing exactly where the beams of radiation need to enter my body.
I try to be calm, to be a “good” patient who is thankful for the technicians and doctors and machines that are helping me. I arrive at the Center on time, change into my blue gown, have my ID card scanned, sign my name in the book and approach the table. I slip my left arm out of the gown, place it outstretched above my head in the supports provided and let the techs move and shift my body to the perfect spot. I stare hopefully at the cheerful, lighted “sky light” in an effort to take my mind to another place. I try not to think of the sounds emanating from the machine that rotates around my chest, a large, circular disc that reminds me of the Starship Enterprise. It floats heavily above me, moving across me to align with the tattoos and target the tissue. I hear the techs speak to me from another room, “Lie heavy; hold your breath. Good….” The machine makes a wheezing sound for about 20 seconds. “Now breath,” the voice replies and I do.
The red lights, coming at me from three angles, look sinister and unforgiving. They are steady and unblinking as they encircle the linear accelerator. When these lights come on, I am reminded of the laser-range finders used in rifles to pinpoint prey, and I feel an eerie, surreal flush creep through my system. Of course, I know none of this is true and my fears and comparisons to sci-fi and shootings are simply a product of my anxiety and over-active imagination.
I’m told this will all get easier. The more I go, the more it will become routine. Perhaps I’ll not even see the red lights or hear the machines’ strange and mechanical sounds in a few weeks. Maybe baring my breast to strangers and lying supine in a cold room full of high-tech, mysterious equipment that are as alien to me as, well, aliens would be, will not faze me in the near future. I can only hope.
As for now, it is still strange, aberrant and frightening. I sit in the waiting room with other women going through similar experiences, although many of them are bald or boast colorful scarves around their heads. Most are quite friendly as we wait for our turn with one of the machines that will hopefully obliterate the cancer cells affecting our bodies. So many woman have gone before me, facing far more serious diagnoses and enduring far more extensive treatment plans. I know that my diagnosis, DCIS, is a minor one in the cancer game, and that seven weeks of minimally invasive treatment is nothing in the big picture. This too shall pass, right? Now, I am marking off my calendar – the end date looking pretty far down an unknown road. I may experience fatigue, sunburned skin, changes in the size and tissue of my breast, but I trust the doctors who have mapped out this plan for me and trust that soon all of this will be something I can say is in my past. I will be happy to leave the treatment room and its advanced, life-saving devices behind, but will forever be more mindful and compassionate to others facing illnesses beyond their own control.