Imprint of a Radiation Mask


Yesterday’s radiation planning visit resulted in the production of this pictured face mask for the purpose of immobilizing my head and shoulders during treatment. I should preface by saying that I didn’t show up to this appointment carrying a ton of fear. On the contrary, I was actually treating this visit as a formality before I had to complete radiation treatments that were annoyingly interrupting the main event of my bone marrow transplant. So, it was a surprise to me, when fear crept in and took me out like a sniper.

The radiation treatment room was an austere collection of rotating tables, cameras and machinery suspended above and below, and what my friend, Jo Ann, decided looked like an electric chair. Every piece of equipment had an associated giant graph or egg-timer dial–a geometry textbook come to life.

My radiation maskI lay on the coldness of the stainless steel table and focused my thoughts on my breath, my prayer, and their instruction, “Don’t move!” while they pushed and pulled me into what was supposedly straightness, but felt more like contorted cramped-ness. They took numerous x-rays, photos and sharpied coordinates to my face, chest, shoulders and head. Then, came what I can only describe as the world’s heaviest stinky hot pizza dough made of lead, which they blanketed over my face and upper body. As the dough hardened and dried, it pinned me deeper into suffocating restraint. Upon drying, they bolted the mask down to the table, squashing me even more until I was completely immobilized and unable to even swallow. You could probably count my teeth from outside my face.

Remember that stinky rough-housing bully from childhood with sticky hands, who didn’t know or care about his own strength? Imagine him pinning you down on an unforgiving metal surface by sitting on your face until you could barely breathe, and then proceeding to write with a sharpie all over your face, head, shoulders and chest.

The worst part was that halfway into the mask drying process, my gown slipped off, but no one scooted it back on, and I couldn’t speak or move. Then, came a parade of random workers in and out of the room getting stuff, talking, laughing. I was dehumanized–naked and trapped in front of so many strangers. A swell of tears crashed against my humiliation.

I don’t want to bum everyone out too much, but the bolted-down-by-the mask CT scan that followed in the next room was comparably unpleasant. Walking from room to room with my mask in hand, the technician kept muttering to himself that I still needed the coordinates tattooed onto my body. He only acknowledged me directly when he held up the mask like a trophy and said, “It’s yours to keep after you’re all done.” Great. I really want that.

But my discomfort made me recall a three-year-old girl with a brain tumor, who was in the recovery room with me after my last surgery. She cried with such raw desperation and kept repeating, “Let me go! Let me go! Let me go!” In thinking and praying for this baby girl since our encounter, I feel blessed that I have the ability to intellectualize my experience that her young mind does not. I know that I’m not being punished. I know this is all temporary–I will either get better or die. But I want her to only get better. Remembering her plea also made me think that although I sometimes convey my emotions with complexity, at the heart of it all, I simply want to be let go too.

I think that when cancer people look at each other, there is a kind of compassion of knowing, not pity, that makes us want to save our comrade more than ourselves. Jo Ann shared that while I was getting fitted, she met an older woman in the waiting room whose husband had three different cancers. His wife was watching us and remarked about me to Jo Ann, “She’s so young.”

Young is relative and so is suffering. We don’t suffer in life because we deserve to. And somehow, we are able to find just enough love and incomprehensible courage to face our fears if we keep on living.

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