Saturday, July 28, 2012

Radiation Discothèque

On the table ready for blast-off
I never wrote in-depth about what this crazy thing called radiation was like. Now that those 10 days of targeted shots are haunting with long-term side effects, it seems appropriate to revisit this past spring.

March 8-21 was spent in New York City getting daily radiation treatments at Sloan-Kettering. The treatment was necessary to free my T-7 and T-10 vertebrae and my lower sacrum of some cancerous clusters that had grown and were causing me significant pain. If we didn’t eradicate them immediately, the risk was there that the cancer cells would break down my bones and collapse my vertebrae – a scary scenario. So radiation it was. The potential damage from it (like the lung inflammation I’m now experiencing) was far outweighed by the immediate danger I was in.

So to NYC it was. I was able to again secure a spot at American Cancer Society’s Hope Lodge so that I could easily commute uptown versus across states to make it to my sessions. I’d traverse there by subway, absolutely loving the energy of the morning commuters around me. The subway cars would be packed and I’d sludge up long lines of stairs and escalators to get to street level then join more morning New Yorkers pouring into the streets and traversing the blocks of the Upper East Side.

I’d pretend I was going somewhere much more enticing and cool than radiation treatment, traveling with my ear buds in listening to whatever artist in particular would get me pumped that morning. Most often it was the Into the Wild soundtrack with Eddie Vedder as I loved the juxtaposition to the gritty city. I molded into the habits of the others around me, often standing with one hand around a pole and another holding open a book as I read through the stops from Herald Square to 64th and Lex. I learned the system and the maps and the shortcuts well. Despite being there for treatment, I adored my time in New York, especially being alone in New York for most of it, though the weekend company was welcome. It sated that long-ago desire to be a young career woman living in the bustling city. Two weeks was just enough.

Each day I’d arrive for an 8:30am session. Most every day I was out by 9 a.m. and had the rest of my time to explore as I pleased. Compared to the drawn-out, long days of chemotherapy sessions, the brevity and simplicity of it all was a breeze. The toughest part was the initial set-up and dry-run-through day when teeny tattoos were emblazoned on my body and a body mold was melted around me to ensure that I would be cradled and positioned in the same precise way for every single treatment. This would maximize effectiveness against the cancer cells and minimize harm against my good cells.

The daily regimen went like this:

“Hi, Miss Diamond. You’re all checked in,” the sweet girl would say as I stepped up to the counter.

I’d take a seat just long enough to catch my breath from the 15-minute walk from subway station to hospital and my name would be called. Up I’d get to grab a locker key and change out of my clothes. Everything from the waist up had to come off – boobies free. I’d tie a navy blue robe around me and would scoot out to the next holding pen where I’d flip through a magazine until my escort came to get me. I was always on the same machine with the same team working with me – a purposeful set-up for consistency.

Most of the radiation techs on my team were young – my age if not younger. They were mostly guys in their twenties save for one middle aged British woman. In all my medical institution experience, I haven’t had many male caregivers so this was a first and I admit it was a little odd as it’s such an intimate encounter.

I’d lay flat on the stiff balance board of the radiation machine where the team would place my body mold each morning. I’d scooch until my bum fit in just the right curves and lay my fingers in the slots at my sides. Each day I’d have to look at the monitor and see my awkward photo to confirm my image and name.

If the music wasn’t already on, I always asked them to crank it. Some days it was reggae. Some days it was classic rock. Most days it was Top 40/hip-hop, which brought the whole experience to a discothèque level – laser lights and all. Nicki Minaj and Ludacris would be signing about flying starships and “hittin’ with the best flow, freestylin’ in the restroom.” An early morning club scene as they’d shut the lights off and send in the radiation beams and triangulation lasers.

Then the adjustments would begin. The guys would open up my robe and cover up my nipples with a paper towel rolled into a bow – a makeshift bikini top. The coarse, thin material covered me just enough to make the attempt at modesty laughable. But to them I was just another body they were aligning. They’d shift my body by pulling the sheet below to the left and right, moving my love handles up and down, pushing my shoulders this way and that, rotating my hips in and out and shirking my pant line down precariously low to my lady parts.

City street reflection
I dealt with the immodesty of it all by laughing to myself imagining that I were laying across a bar top with these guys hovered over me poised to take a lick of salt off my stomach and a shot of tequila from my navel. It was as intimate as a body shot at times, but the instruments involved were black sharpie markers that they drew bull’s eyes on me with each morning.

During an evening walk in Chelsea with my friend Meredith we passed a sex toy store and she pointed out the frilly burlesque titty tassles displayed in the window jokingly suggesting that I should paste those bad boys on before my last treatment. What an 8:30 a.m. surprise that would be for the techs. I still laugh thinking about that. Sure was tempting.

The adjustments would take about 15 minutes of aligning and realigning as they switched from area to area to be radiated and recalibrated my body and the machine around me. Once all was settled they’d cover me in a white blanket for the treatment itself – a return to modesty.
As I’d hear the machine kick in, I’d envision an extremely powerful stream of water going right at the areas of cancer cell bulk – kind of like a power washer. I’d visualize the tremendous strength of that water stream blowing apart those cells until my bones were freed of the invaders.

Apparently it worked as the spots disappeared and have remained gone for near five months now. But in a cruel twist of fate during what seemed to be one of the smoothest phases of my cancer treatment yet, on the second-to-last day I became that “one-in-a-million” chance patient whose vital body mold went missing.

The poor schlep sent to tell me the news looked like he was going to vomit right there on the floor. I had a feeling something was up as many more people had been called into their sessions before I had.

He just blurted it out: “You’re not going to believe this, but we can’t find your body mold.”

I had that day’s treatment and the next day’s, which would be my last. I was not going to be messing up this plan or extending this New York stay any longer than I had to. At that point I was very tired and I wanted to go home – home home.

I just nodded back at him quizzically waiting for elaboration.

He was professional and apologetic, but sweating bad. Not sure if it was him, but someone screwed up real bad. Going off the handle in anger wasn’t going to get me anywhere. I just needed the problem fixed and he assured me that that is what they were working on.

My radiation oncologist had been contacted and they were waiting to see how he wanted to proceed. Evidently, the whole building had been scoured but nowhere was my mold: a Karin Diamond sized hard, thick piece of plastic with a deep body imprint had miraculously disappeared. It was deduced that likely someone read the treatment dates on my chart wrong and it got trashed prematurely. Or, a very creepy person took it home with them and cuddles with it every night … . I’ll never know.

Customarily patients are radiated from front to back, but because the spots my doctors were aiming for were in such delicate areas as my vertebrae and sacrum, the beams had to be angled using lots of geometry – which I do not understand – in order to avoid damaging any of my vital organs. Therefore I had a radiation “plan” that could not be taken lightly.

Loved this Union Square sculpture
They couldn’t trust the accuracy of my alignment without the mold even though it was only for two measly treatments. It wasn’t enough to just tell me to hold morbidly still. Without my body mold, I could not be safely treated. I’d have to go through the whole alignment and mold forming process again. The day was a huge exhaustion of resources, money and time for the hospital. I’m not doubtful that some heads rolled over the scrambling that my situation caused.  

When he spotted me sitting in the little waiting vestibule in my blue robe sneering and pouting near tears, the doctor came over. I had worked most closely with this very empathetic and thoughtful radiation resident during the entire radiation process. He told me that if I was going to be mad at anyone to be mad at him because he was insisting not to take any chances and to fix this problem right.

I wasn’t mad. I was tired and frustrated, worried and stressed. There was no one person or no one thing to be mad at. The situation was what it was and I had to go through the process needed to rectify it. I was impressed by the way they professionally remedied the situation, but it didn’t make it any less exhausting. Like a limp doll I was shuffled around all day from building to building, machine to machine, pants yanked down, forced to lay flat and still for hours under x-ray machines, drawn on with marker, my naked body precariously close to a lot of people’s faces as they tugged at my flesh shifting me to perfectly align until I again melted into a hot mold of plastic.

At one point I found myself sitting on the toilet in the ladies dressing room asking the universe how such a stupid mistake couple possibly happen. What kind of idiot could lose a human-size mold? I mindlessly looked down at the pants around my ankles and realized that my tag-less yoga pants were on backward. They’d been on backward all morning long meaning I’d been walking around with insignias and logos in all the wrong places. I had to laugh. I guess we’re all human.

Some oopsies are bigger than others though.


  1. Oh Karin,
    Thank god for your sense of humor ... and thank you for your willingness to revisit that incident and share it with us as only you can do.
    BIG HUG. Judy

  2. Oh, Karin - I love, love, LOVE that your pants were on backward!!! ~ Michelle

  3. Karin loved your article in Saturdays Hartford courant.I liked your blog with it's candidness. I am sort of lucky in that I have non Hodgkin's lymphoma. It brought back the memories of treatments.I wish you only the best. Love Angelo