*NOTE: This was written about an event that happened 5 years ago. Thank you all for your kind words and support. You’re the best!
I am held prisoner on the cold metal table, and the fire of the radiation burns my right breast. I must lie still; there is a cable attached to a machine which is also attached to the radiation seed inside my breast. It is the prescribed treatment after the lumpectomy which removed the cancerous growth.
My mind wanders as I try to distract myself from the pain. I am three weeks away from turning 48 years old, which is the exact age that my father was when he died of cancer. I inhale deeply and the stench of the disinfectant fills my nose. All around me are large stainless steel surfaces. Computers dot the shelves.
A so-called friend had told me, “Well maybe now you will take better care of yourself,” when I had shared my diagnosis. My body tightens, and I exhale deeply.
I think back to the night I returned home to find legal papers duct-taped to the front door, informing me that I was scheduled to appear in court the following Monday morning. My ex-husband was filing for full custody of my son. That gave me exactly one day to find a lawyer. The papers were dated two weeks prior, which means he purposely held the papers until the last minute to catch me unprepared. The thought of losing my son burns hotter than the radiation. I fight the wetness forming in my eyes. I am a survivor, not a victim, I recite to myself.
The roster of the patients scheduled for treatment today is displayed on the computer screen on the right side of the room. Suddenly, the screen changes and displays a “Real Estate for sale” website. Pictures of houses scroll by as I realize that the technician who is supposed to be monitoring my radiation treatment is house shopping.
My shoulders dig into the table, and my hands grasp the sides tightly as I fight the urge to get up and run out of the room. I lose a different battle though, and feel a tear leave my eye and run down the side of my head into my disheveled hair.
“Five minutes remaining.” The voice thunders from the speakers overhead. The ceiling lights are bright, and a cold wind descends from the ventilation system. I breathe in, and breathe out, convincing my body to freeze in place and persevere.
The technician walks back into the room. He unhooks me from the radiation machine. “You’re all set,” he says. My voice is frozen; I make no response. I sit up, turn toward the side of the table, and thrust my feet down to the floor. I wrap the hospital gown around me more tightly and return to the dressing room and change back into my own clothes.
My mother has been waiting in the lobby for me, and she drives me back home. I wish I didn’t need her help, but I’m too tired after the radiation to drive myself.
Once back at the house, I sit down on the couch and melt into it. The doorbell rings. My son answers the door and escorts my friend Deb into the living room. “This is Debra, and this is my mom, Katie,” I say as I point to my mother. “Deb usually washes dogs, but today she’s washing my hair!” My mother chuckles.
“Yes, I have a dog care business. I feed them and take care of them when people are on vacation, and give them walks. And I sometimes give them baths.”
“The kitchen is this way,” I tell Deb. “And here is the shampoo and conditioner.”
Due to the stitches under my arm I am unable to lift my arm over my head, which makes washing my own hair impossible. I don’t like feeling dependent, but I have no choice.
Deb adjusts the water to a pleasant temperature, moistens my hair and carefully massages the shampoo into my scalp. She doesn’t seem to care how dirty it is. She rinses my hair with warm water, applies and rubs in the conditioner. Another heavenly warm rinse of water, a gentle wringing out of the excess water, and she’s finished. She lovingly wraps the towel around my head and puts her arm around my shoulder to help me straighten back up.
“Thank you. Thank you so much,” I tell her.
“Oh, you’re welcome, honey. Call me if you need anything. Anything at all.”
I follow her back to the doorway. “Bye, and thank you again.”
Back inside, my son, my husband, my mother and I start to ask each other what to do about dinner. “We can order a pizza,” my husband volunteers.
“Well, I can cook us some hamburgers,” my mother says.
The doorbell rings. My son answers the door, and welcomes a group of neighbors who have their arms full. They carry bags into the kitchen, where they bring out a large pan of chicken (which just needs to be reheated), a large salad, two large bottles of salad dressing, a large bottle of soda, and a bag of cookies.
My hand flew over my mouth. I was once again speechless, but now it was in a good way! I watched as they put the food onto the counter,
“Thank you,” I finally sputtered. “It’s nice to know someone cares.”
“Well, of course. Enjoy! Someone will be bringing you dinner every night this week.” They walked out the front door as quickly as they had come in.
My family dove to the food. “Wow, this is nice. What nice friends you have,” my mother says. “And they will be bringing food for the rest of the week. What a big help that is.”
* * * *
That was my first day of cancer radiation treatment. Although the day started out, well, awful, it turned into an occasion to embrace the good things, to take life one day at a time, and to let myself rely on family and friends when I needed to. Previously, I always felt that I was a failure if I needed to ask for help.
I decided that I no longer needed to be so fiercely independent, that it was time to let myself receive help when I needed it. And that decision has changed my life.