20 days later…done!

By Caitlin Kelly

 

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With their permission — the team whose kindness and skill got me through; Left to right; manager of clinic, Katrina; tech Yadi; Dr. Andrews; nurse practitioner Amara; receptionist/scheduler Khaleila and tech Susan.

 

I got to ring the gong today!

It’s the lovely ritual — some hospitals use a bell — with which patients mark the end of treatment. Jose, as he has for so much of this summer, came along to keep my company, to and celebrate.

It was a day of teary good-byes as well. Who would cry leaving a hospital clinic? If the team was as kind and fun and funny as mine was…you would, too!

 

caitlin hits gong

 

I had been  heading to our local hospital every morning for 20 days, the time prescribed for radiation for my left breast after surgery. I had a lumpectomy on July 6 removing all cancer, but this was considered a standard course of treatment to make sure nothing minuscule remained.

It began with a simulation, which was uncomfortable and disorienting, and also included weekly X-rays and a weekly meeting with the radiation doctor, a woman I liked a lot.

For the sim, I lay on the long narrow table while the team decided how to position my body and practiced it.

At the sim, they also gave me eight minuscule black tattoos — barely the size of a freckle — three on my front, five on my back — so the techs could align my body into position each time using laser beams. (It’s all stunningly space age.)

 

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The entire machine pivots around you. The blue rubber ring is where I placed both my hands, my face in the cradle.

The actual daily treatment was painless and quick , once the two technicians shimmied me into precise position on the table. I lay face down, with my left breast dangling, to minimize radiation to my heart and lungs — about 24 seconds per side.

Here’s a link to the website for the machine, a Varian Trilogy.

The machine is enormous, and you get used to hearing it whirring into position, with a sound sort of like running water, as it pivoted to one side, then overhead, and down to the other side of my body.

With my face in a cradle, and my arms in a sort of V-shape above my head, I saw only peripheral flashes of light, heard a buzzing noise, and felt nothing.

The hardest part, initially, was the strain on my tight left shoulder staying immobile in that position.

The techs were always extremely kind and upbeat — apologizing every time they had to move my body into position and (gently!) move my other breast out of the way. They always placed a heated blanket over my bare back, put a scented strip beneath the cradle for my head and played a variety of music during the procedure.

Sort of a spa, I joked!

 

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It’s enormous!

 

The clinic staff did everything possible to make it less frightening. There’s a huge fish tank in the waiting room and free coffee and tea and snacks and piles of new magazines and a television you can mute.

You can sit as long as you like before and after treatment, and there are never more than two or three people waiting.

I’m lucky that ours is a small suburban hospital and not some enormous, bustling big-city facility.

I never felt like a number, but a human being.

Of all the tests and treatments my body experienced this summer, this was in some ways the easiest since at least it was non-invasive — and, luckily, I don’t need chemo.

 

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I have no idea what these numbers mean. It’s all quite mysterious.

 

But, by the end, I was done; I was really tired and my skin sore, itchy and irritated.

I got to know several other patients, as we all came at the same times every day. There’s a powerful sort of intimacy in a space like this. We don’t need to say much or ask probing questions. We can share a hug or an eye-roll.

We all arrive unwillingly, alone or with a loved one.

And we all pray for the best possible outcome.

Exposing oneself to millions

By Caitlin Kelly

Thanks to a reader here, I decided to pitch one of my earlier blog posts as a larger, reported story about medical touch — and my own experience of it — to The New York Times, and it ran today, prompting many enthusiastic and grateful tweets.

Here’s the link, and an excerpt:

It started, as it does for thousands of women every year, with a routine mammogram, and its routine process of having my breasts — like a lump of dough — manipulated by another woman’s hands and placed, albeit gently, into tight compression. It’s never comfortable, but you get used to it because you have to.

Unlike previous years, though, my next step was a biopsy, for which I lay face down, my left breast dangling through a hole in the table. Several hands reached for what’s normally a private and hidden body part and moved it with practiced ease, compressing it again into position for the radiologist’s needles, first a local anesthetic and then the probes needed to withdraw tissue for sampling.

I was fearful of the procedure and of its result and, to my embarrassment, wept quietly during the hour. A nurse gently patted my right shoulder and the male radiologist, seated to my left and working below me, stroked my left wrist to comfort me. I was deeply grateful for their compassion, even as they performed what were for them routine procedures.

 

It is decidedly weird to out one’s health status — let alone discuss your breast! — in a global publication like the Times — but it also offered me, as a journalist and a current patient undergoing treatment,  a tremendous platform to share a message I think really important.

 

I hope you’ll share it widely!

 

 

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Every patient needs to be touched kindly and gently