The train eases into the early morning fog. Other commuters are lulled to sleep on their way to work. I slothily lean my head against the window and look out, exhausted. But I cannot sleep. Outside, blurred lights blink past me.
All I think is, “What the hell just happened?”
The train’s route is clear, but I’m lost.
This is my first “normal” commute to work after completing radiation to help treat breast cancer.
Thirty-three workdays prior to this commute, I found myself face-to-face with the radiation machine for the first time and facing a major disruption to my work schedule. Being the sole provider of my family, I had no choice but to work full-time while undergoing radiation and chemotherapy simultaneously. When radiation would eventually end, chemotherapy would continue for awhile.
I had a coveted 8:10 a.m. radiation slot, which meant — with my altered commute route — I got to work at 10 a.m. and stayed to 6 p.m.
I was preoccupied during those days —
I had to comply with medical orders and show up faithfully by 8 a.m. every workday for my radiation treatment, as well as deal with an increasingly resentful boss who demanded I log in my adjusted hours to prove I was putting in the same number of hours as everyone else. In addition, my marriage was failing. My family was geographically far from me. While my brother and aunt were highly supportive, my parents were in denial about cancer. They pressured me to be happy and keep my disease a secret. A couple of friends distanced themselves from me.
I needed a hearty dose of local love.
And I got such love — from a most unexpected source: my radiation oncologist and her staff. Dr. K would always greet me with smiles and laughter — and frequent hugs. She cared about my physical and emotional welfare, and she cared about what was going on in my life. I remember showing up to radiation sick as hell, and Dr. K immediately ended her conversation with a fellow physician and tended to me. When her staff adjusted me on the radiation machine, they did so with warmth. They spoke to me as if I were a member of their family. When I broke down sobbing in front of a nurse, she held and rocked me like a baby and wiped the tears from my face and cleaned my eye glasses.
Once Dr. K said, “Oh Beth, I love you!” as she hugged me. Dr. K’s staff gave me hugs throughout my entire radiation treatment. I know this sounds strange, but as much as radiation sucked, it was also my safety net. And, as difficult as it was to cope with cancer and juggle treatment and work, I looked forward to radiation each day because I was cared for, nurtured, and treated so well. Even while my body rebelled with radiation burnout and despite the Chernobyl going on in my right breast, I emotionally thrived in a weird way.
Then, after 33 days, I got my certificate for being finished with radiation and was shown the door (in a nice, loving way). It was “see ya” and “you’re done, rah rah.” B’bye safety net. Just when I thought I was on the safe side of the tightrope of dealing with cancer treatment, I found myself dangling high in the night air with no net beneath me.
To this day, I wonder if it would’ve been better to have impersonal care and not get too attached to Dr. K and her staff, or whether the care I received — albeit for a finite period of time — was what helped me through cancer treatment. I choose to believe the latter. With my personal life gone awry, I needed the radiation staff as an anchor, even if it was only temporary.
What has been your relationship with doctors and their staff?
Have your relationships with medical personnel helped you through treatment?