Sometimes I refer to it as the summer I was sick. Or the summer Jake got married. But in my head it’s my Ativan summer.
Have you ever taken Ativan? I’d been given the prescription right after my diagnosis of oral cancer. It takes the edge off of anxiety and calms jangled nerves. “Are you claustrophobic?” was one of the first questions I’d been asked. I am, not to the point where I can’t ride an elevator but I don’t like crowds and hate anything covering my face. That was unfortunate since I had to be fitted with a customized mask that would be bolted to a table to ensure the radiation would be beamed onto the exact treatment spot and that I would be unable to move. At all. So I was all Ativaned up when the cool plastic mesh was molded to my head and as it hardened I thought okay I can do this.
I was scheduled for 33 rounds, Monday through Friday afternoons. So about an hour before we’d leave I’d take my pill. And It does what it’s supposed to do. The elevator ride down to Lunder 3 was a calm one. I read ‘Gone Girl’ as I waited to be called. They give you the option to bring in music so I had given them a CD from my spa aesthetician. Those cheesy flutes and soft gongs relaxed me. (A guy who had the same time slot told me he played Elvis.)
I got through the first 5 rounds and then the next 5. Ativan was my best friend and life was fairly normal. I’d stopped working but I still walked the dog, talked on the phone. I had long conversations with the party planner about menus and décor for my son’s rehearsal party. Then around week 3 the panic set in.
Never believe the implication when someone says ‘oh she only has to have radiation’ that somehow radiation is easier than chemo. While I was relieved to be spared chemotherapy, radiation is intense and head/neck radiation particularly so. Here’s the thing about radiation. You don’t get used to it. It doesn’t get easier. You know what to expect, the darkened treatment room, the swish and whir of the machines as they hover over your head, your team behind the protective glass telling you you’re doing great, just 10 more minutes. As predicted the mouthsores had sprouted and multiplied and spread under my tongue, on the soft inner tissue of my cheeks and down my throat. I could no longer eat. So I lived on strawberry Ensure and warm-never-hot broth. One stop on the elevator down to Lunder 3 is the cafeteria. My stomach would clench when a nurse would get on with a covered plate of cheeseburger and fries.
It was a Friday and I’d showered, watched tv, rested. We drove the 25 minutes into Boston and got on that now-familiar elevator. Got called in, laid down on the table but as they bolted my mask and started to insert the anti-gag stick I had a full-blown anxiety attack. “No,“ I gasped. “No I can’t do this. I can’t. I’m so sorry. Please get me up.” I’d forgotten my Ativan. No one questioned me or tried to convince me to soldier through it. Instead they unbolted the mask, helped me up and rubbed my back as I cried. Sobbed. “I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry,” was all I could say. That following Monday, and for each remaining round, I took 2 Ativan.
There’s a ship’s bell attached to the wall of LL3. After your last treatment you ring the bell. People clap and you hug your family. After my 33rd round (+ a day) I rang that bell and that was the sweetest sound I’ve ever heard.