Radiation in the time of COVID-19

Wednesday, May 6, 2020. Today was my radiation half-way point.

I’ve been taking Xeloda twice a day every other week since March 21. The most noticeable side effect is fatigue. I started radiation two and a half weeks ago on April 20th. That was also a “Xeloda-on” week. The combination of radiation and chemo almost immediately exacerbated the fatigue. I was expecting it, but I thought it would be more gradual. I’ve been trying to get outside more and putz around the yard knowing it will boost my energy level a bit. But some days…well, I just don’t do anything. I guess the daily radiation treatments do force me to get dressed and get out of the house whether I want to or not. On the weekends it’s more of a struggle. I spend a lot of time arguing with myself in my head.

3DD69223-103D-429E-B2B6-DAE206F97E8EThe weekday 45-minute drives to the Cancer Center in Ukiah during the pandemic force me (and my husband when he tags along) to actively participate in the world as it is. My experience at the Cancer Center is weirdly different than any I had in the last 20 months. The first weird thing is no hugs, of course. But what a vastly different and impersonal experience it is to not be greeted with any sort of physical exchange. Even weirder still is that in the patient waiting area there is a poster all about hugs, and healing power of hugs. I look at it and think, “that’s not happening again any time soon.” Part of me thinks they should remove it, because it’s really kind of sad.

So when I arrive I am required to wait in my car until 5 minutes before my appointment to go into the office. I am required to wear a face mask, of course. Yes, that’s me in my homemade bandana face mask.

Sometimes, if they are running ahead of schedule a tech will come out to the car and get me. Next someone takes my temperature because of COVID-19, not because it is routine to do so for daily radiation treatments. I then change into my lovely gown, then sit and wait until one of the radiation techs comes for me. There are two radiation techs, a woman and a man, and they work in tandem getting me set up for the zapping. They, too, wear face masks. For me, that’s been the weirdest part. What I’ve discovered is that not everyone smiles with their eyes. So, it’s hard to tell if they are happy or sad or bored or engaged or just doing their job. The woman says a lot with her eyes, the man not so much. He’s really hard to read. But he’s a hummer. He hums when he’s gently pushing and pulling me into position. And his voice is friendly enough when he speaks to me. But the eyes. It’s kind of bizarre. Face masks really rob us of personality, no matter how much we try to express with our eyes.

Every Monday, after my treatment, I meet with the radiation oncologist Dr. Joseph. I do not go into his office. Instead he comes to his doorway in his face mask, and I stand about 6 feet away. He waves hello, asks me questions, I answer the questions and give him an update on my side effects. After about a five or 10-minute exchange, we wave to each other and say, “Good-bye. See you next week.” It’s all so…well, weird.

The final weird thing is the other patients. Typically, there are never more than two of us in the office at the same time. So it’s extremely quiet. And it’s always the same people I see. The patient who is just ahead of me, and the patient who follows me. I don’t know their names. I don’t know why they are getting radiation. I don’t know a thing about them. It’s all so robotic and impersonal. It’s just plain weird.

The good news is that side effects have been minimal. Yes, I am fatigued and lack ambition. I do have chemo brain that manifests as forgetfulness…I still haven’t found my hiking shoes or prescription sunglasses that I lost somewhere in this house. And my hands and my feet get overheated at night while I’m sleeping so I find myself standing in the dark on the tile floor of the bathroom at least once or twice nightly. But, so far, that’s it. My bloodwork has been good. My skin is still doing okay where I’m getting zapped, although I’m told to expect the irritation to start in the not too distant future. Time will tell.

And so it goes. One day at a time.

Life forms no logical patterns. It is haphazard and full of beauties—which I try to catch as they fly by, for who knows whether any of them will ever return? —Margot Fonteyn