I’m being chauffeured to my first radiation appointment by my boyfriend. The only sound is the faint hum of traffic around us. He isn’t sure what to say to make things better and I’m to blame for that. I don’t make it easy for him. I’ve been difficult to live with since the diagnosis, sometimes asking him to leave and not worry about me, other times trying to drive him away with erratic behavior. He never once left me, not even in anger.
I glance over at his face while he drives and notice the lines around his eyes and mouth. They seem to be etched into his skin as if someone pushed down on a pencil to deepen the marks. I’m sure this is from worry about me and how I will handle the cancer treatments. My thoughts drift to whether or not my right breast will be deformed after the radiation or if I’ll experience scar tissue, sun burn, or any other side effects.
Two tiny pills are packed in a small Ziploc bag inside my purse just in case I decide to take something for the pain. I peek under the top of my dress to look at my right breast. Except for a small lumpectomy scar, my skin is soft and flawless—as if it belongs to a baby. I rub my fingertips over my breast like a magician casting a spell hoping my skin stays smooth and supple.
My radiation treatment of choice is brachytherapy, pronounced ‘brak-e-therapy’ with the first ‘a’ sounding like the ‘a’ in bra. It’s a partial breast irradiation in which tissue adjacent to the original breast lump is radiated using thin catheters inserted around the tumor site. The five day treatment is eight minutes, twice a day, and six hours apart.
Ten catheters are inserted under local with a CT scanner to insure correct placement. The procedure itself isn’t difficult except for having to lie on your back for two hours. While I wait for the CT results, I lift up the dressing and check for bleeding and swelling. It’s not only my nursing instinct that comes to play here, but also my vanity. It’s tribal looking, like a tattoo for a cult that is shaped like a kite, similar to the Big and Little Dipper with small buttons which form the artwork. The tiny white dots line up in a triangular position a quarter inch above my nipple. Under my right armpit are ten corresponding buttons with numbers ‘like a ‘connect the dots illustration’ to assist the physicist with his treatment plan. I have to remind myself in mantra style that this is temporary, it will heal soon, it may not scar, and that the radiation lasts only five days.
I feel the lidocaine wearing off as my upper chest and right arm begin to ache, as if I worked out too hard. The pain effects every change of position: dressing, bending, eating, computer work, and bathing. My body adjusts to the catheters and although I’m sore, it is tolerable. I wear a black sports bra which I change intermittently after my daily sponge baths. I sleep on my back for fear of dislodging the catheters.
A nurse friend comes over during the weekend to clean in-between the buttons with a special solution. We go quietly into the bathroom, as if we are performing a ritual. She is the only one allowed to see the tattoo, my rite of passage, my mark of status and rank, a decoration for bravery. I find myself turning my head away from the site while she dabs solution with a Q-tip around the buttons.
I remember as a child looking for the North Star by finding the most recognizable asterism in the night sky. As I trace the Big Dipper on my chest, I feel it rotating around the north celestial pole through the night and through the seasons. Knowing it will always be a part of me, I look for the handle of the Little Dipper and let the North Star guide me home.