The scariest days of any cancer treatment are the first and the last.
Fear of the unknown tightens its grip when you walk into radiation or chemotherapy without knowing what’s ahead. You hear the stories. You see the patients.
But until they call your name and you walk into the treatment room, you don’t know what life will be like.
A few weeks into it, you’re an old pro. You’re learning from the veterans, comforting the rookies. You fall into a routine, learn where to park, know the nurses’ names and feel like you’re doing the right thing.
Then comes the hard part.
The part you looked forward to.
The day I finished 33 radiation treatments was a day that had been circled on my calendar for more than a month. It was a goal, a benchmark, a day to celebrate.
At Roper Hospital’s Radiation Oncology unit, they have a bell mounted on the wall. It was donated by a former patient. On the day you finish your cycle, your reward is getting to ring the bell on your way out.
It’s fun. You take pictures. Everybody claps. Then you walk out with a feeling of relief and accomplishment. And, of course, more fear.
The unanswered question after any cancer treatment is, did it work?
The doctors are always cautiously confident. They deal in numbers. They have it down to a science. Patient data. Clinical studies. Extrapolations. Success rates.
But the truth is, success rates can vary. It’s written in the small print you’re afraid to read.
I won’t know for a month or two whether all this radiation has killed the microscopic cancer cells that linger in my body after surgery for prostate cancer.
In a month or so, I’ll get another check-up. So I get to wonder for a while.
We’ve all come to know that “cancer-free” and “cancer survivor” and “in remission” are relative, if not temporary, terms. No guarantees.
The other common side effect they don’t tell you about is obituary-itis. That’s the inability to read the newspaper without glancing through the obituaries, checking the ages of the dearly departed.
Some are older. Some are younger.
Then we read the words, “after a courageous 10-year battle against cancer,” and start counting on our fingers.
All good things
I’d never been that comfortable in hospitals until I became a cancer patient. Now I find myself breezing in and out like a doctor making his rounds.
I visit people in oncology who are going through a tough time. I check on guys in the urology wing who just had surgery. I flirt with the technicians on the elevators. I know the lady in the coffee shop.
But all good things come to an end.
Even radiation treatment.
On my last day, I arrived early, spoke to the lovely volunteer ladies, chatted with my new friends in the waiting room, thanked the therapists, kissed the nurses, rang the bell, tipped the valet parking boys and I was gone.
One chapter closes, another awaits.