Radiation Fallout

Posted on: April 6th, 2017 by
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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.

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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.

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And after a weekend of emotional disbelief, numbness, grief, and shock, I found myself on a train, confused, on a regular morning commute.

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?


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6 Responses to Radiation Fallout

  1. Wendy had this to say about that:

    Your story brought tears to my eyes. I’ve known those who have gone through radiation and chemo with uncaring staff, I believe it makes all the difference. I’m glad you had that support, I wish you had more.

    I’ve had good and bad experiences.
    2 really good experiences.
    One with the nurse at my otologist office. She’s seen me with vertigo, with lost hope…she has always treated me like I was family. I haven’t seen that dr in almost 2 years now, but I still keep in touch with that nurse.
    The other was a neuro radiologist, she worked on cerebral spinal fluid fluctuations. I’ve had 9 lumbar punctures, and a slew of other procedures on my spine. This dr treated me with respect and kindness and always gave me hope. So much so I drew her a picture that said HOPE in the design.
    Well that’s my stories in a nutshell. Thank you for sharing yours.
    Wendy

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      Wendy,

      Thank you for sharing your story, which moved me. Your nurse sounds so special, and I’m glad you both keep in touch.

      I’m so glad your neuroradiologist treated you with the respect and dignity you deserved. You’ve unfortunately had very unpleasant testing.

      Take care of yourself and thanks for your comment.

  2. Nancy Stordahl had this to say about that:

    Hi Beth,
    Wow, those days must have been so tough. So much trauma to try to deal with and without support close by. I think it’s wonderful you had such a connection to that doctor and team. They helped steer you through some very difficult days. Of course, when you were sent on your way, that was hard. Still, sometimes we have to take the support we can get when we can get it. I have never had a close relationship with any doctor. I liked my PCP a lot, but she recently started teaching and so cut back on her other stuff. It’s not like we were close, but she really listened, and I miss that. I’ve never been close with anyone on my cancer care team, but I’ve never really wanted to be either. Thank you for writing about this, Beth. xo

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      Hi Nancy,

      Yes, they were very tough days indeed. Thank you for your empathy. The truth is, cancer is hell for us all, and we all have terrible trauma. Everyone is different: some people thrive with medical staff’s support, and others don’t feel the need to be close to their medical providers.

      There’s no right way to have a relationship with a doctor, I find. I am glad your PCP listened to you. Being listened to by doctors is key, I think.

      Thank you for your comment.

  3. Rebecca had this to say about that:

    Beth, I am so glad you received such kindness and care from your medical team. I need my hugs from time to time so I appreciate when doctors go the extra mile to try and make their patients comfortable (if this is what patients prefer). I see my oncologist next week and look forward to the hug more than anything else. I hate that we’re dealing with this and I am sorry you didn’t have all the support you deserved. I hope you never have to deal with any of this again. I know there will always be reminders and anxiety, but I hope this is all we have to deal with. I’ve been thinking about you and hoping for good results, always. xoxo

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      Rebecca,

      Thank you so much for your kind comment. I never thought I was much for hugs from medical staff, but it turned out I really needed the kindness they gave me. And it’s true — not all patients prefer being treated this way by their medical staff.

      I hope you never have to deal with anything as hellacious as breast cancer again. As you know, that’s enough suffering for a lifetime.

      Thank you for the well wishes.

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