Face to Face
I'm living inside a nightmare, and I wish it didn’t belong to me. There is a web surrounding the nightmare, like that of the Golden Orb spider. An almost Escher-like web, twisting and turning, with no definable beginning or end, trapping me, binding me.
Everyone wears a mask, or so they say, but not so long ago I wore two masks. I still wear my invisible everyday mask, although too much of myself is now exposed, the battle scars of surgery are somewhat evident.
The “other”, my visible one, stares into space, eyeless, nose-less, ears covered, the mouth only a few small holes. It hangs on my wall now, to remind me of how my life has recently changed, a reminder of the grim mechanics of cancer treatment.
I wore both masks for some time in the Radiology Department of the hospital, where I was to be "cured" from the “C” disease, the one that swallows you piece by piece, slowly. I had joined the club that no one wants to join.
During a surgical biopsy, a primary tumour had been discovered, located in the soft palate near my tonsil. The Radiology Oncologist was certain he could destroy the primary tumour with radiation, not chemotherapy, so that was to be the next part of my expedition, radiation. (Destroy my head, I thought to myself. Will I glow in the dark?).
The previous part of my journey was surviving the surgery that had removed half of my neck, some nerves and muscle, and a jugular vein. This was to excise the secondary tumour, which had taken control of the lymph gland in my neck, growing larger day by day. Forty-one lymph nodes were removed, one being malignant.
Now came the preparation for treatment, and my “other mask” had to be made. This involved me being smothered in cold latex, followed by warm plaster strips, from scalp to chest, to form a mould from which the perspex mask would be created. This final mask and myself were later to be anchored to the “slab” as I called it, under the machine, so I couldn’t move during the blasts of X-rays.
The man who measured and moulded me for the mask asked if I was claustrophobic. I said I wasn’t, except for the MRI machine.
He smiled, “Many people have said that, and so am I”. So I am normal, I hope?
When most of your face, neck and ears are covered in latex and plaster bandages, the outside world sounds muffled as if you’re underwater. I remembered the advice from someone else who had also undergone radiotherapy, “treat the mask as your friend, and imagine you are somewhere else”. So, as I lay there, a song came to me, which I sang silently to myself. It was “Octopus’s Garden” by the Beatles:
“…I'd like to be, under the sea, in an octopus’s garden in the shade…we would be warm, below the storm, in our little hideaway beneath the waves…”.
Besides having a light and cheerful melody, the song appeared to suit my present situation. Was there a reason why that particular song came to me? I don’t know, perhaps because I felt as if I was in a deep-sea diving-bell outfit, slowly walking across the sea floor, to my uncertain future. I heard my blood loudly coursing through my veins, and I used my pulse as a metronome for the song.
A couple of days later the “other mask” was ready for fitting, and then what the specialists call “planning” began. It’s like a dress rehearsal, involving a trial run of X-rays, measurements and adjustments, for the fine-tuning of where the high dosage X-rays would be aimed. I wore both of my masks in the room of buzzes, darkness and light, people and machines, a combination designed to help destroy these rampant, wandering, diseased cells. When wearing this visible mask, I felt alone, disassociated with the sounds of life surrounding me. I was not afraid, just very alone.
Now for my first day on treatment. I am not allowed to move when I am strapped to the "slab”. Straps from the back of the mask tie me to the "slab", straps from the "slab" come up under my armpits to the front of the mould, pinning my shoulders down.
I hold onto the handlebars by my side, as the "slab" is sent on its way, upward to the machine’s round face, me feeling uncomfortable. I listened to the technicians, unable to reply except for a slight grunt, being unable to motion any response. Must stay still, can't cough or sneeze, or swallow that gluggy mucous, must cope with the discomfort, it won't be for long.
The lights are dimmed, except for the red laser beams, the measurement line-up lines. They say it is dangerous to look into laser lights, so I tried not to, but I don‘t think that really matters now, when your body is about to be pumped full of radiation, full of poison.
"Can you move your shoulder down a little? Towards your left." I comply.
"Thanks." Lights on again. I asked why the lights went from dim to bright.
“That’s so we can see you on the video monitor”. Oh, to see if I cark it?
Faces are around me, mumbling technical things. The machine moves, up a little, down, in towards me, for the critical alignment. Smell the technicians’ breaths, smell their flesh. Hmm, she must have had garlic last night. One thing I had noticed during the treatment was that my sense of smell was growing stronger, as my tastebuds were dying, burnt by the radiation.
Smell and taste, I thought they worked together. It appeared not so in my case. Though that didn’t really matter now, as I could only manage a liquid diet. Sickly food supplement drinks, soups, and water. They were preceded by soluble painkillers to aid swallowing, as my throat and mouth became more burnt. I had to crush my stronger pain tablets before ingesting them. There were many times when I felt I could not be bothered with trying to swallow anything at all, but I had to persevere, as I was losing too much weight.
Even though I had researched for quite some time about the adverse effects of radiotherapy before I began treatment, I did not realise how much it affected your taste, took away most of your saliva, and was so painful. I thought radiotherapy would be quite an easy task, after going through the discomfort of surgery.
As the weeks progressed, there were other obstacles to overcome – oral thrush, bleeding gums when brushing teeth, mouth ulcers, and the never ending dry mouth and throat. Many times I felt like giving up, and I was sick of seeing red expulsions when rinsing my mouth, and the pain. The soft tissues of the mouth and throat I’m sure are more sensitive than that of the epidermis. But, I had to persevere if I wanted to live a bit longer, and beat this dreaded disease.
Special toothpaste, mouth gels and chewing gums were purchased, besides swishing my mouth regularly with bi-carb soda. And my best friend ever was a bottle of water, always in hand, as it seemed with every second breath, you sipped.
When could I eat? I had not eaten solid food for over three months. Just some French baguette, butter, fresh tomato and basil was all I desired, so simple a request. But, I had to wait quite a few weeks more.
"Day two, one ninety-one by forty-two point three…yes, that looks good…won't be long." one of the technicians stated. The dimmed lights go to bright, as all of the technicians briskly left the room.
Except for the machine and a radio playing bland pop music, I am left alone on the “slab”. Divorcing myself from what is about to happen, I peruse the machine, its rivets and various connector sockets, then count the holes in the ceiling’s masonite tiles above. A shame there was no picture or painting on the ceiling, as you may find in a dentist’s surgery, to transport you elsewhere.
BZZZZZZZZZ. The first radiation blast of my session. I count the seconds, listening to my heart and breathing, so loud now, encased in this perspex mask.
The buzz stops. The technicians come in again, and the big machine is rotated to the other side of my neck. More measurements, and gentle manoeuvring of the machine in the dimness, then the bright lights are turned on again, and the technicians scurry out.
BZZZZZZZZZ. A second or two less than the first one. The machine is then moved to above my face, we face each other. Lead blocks are placed on a specially marked template, with my name written on the other side, backwards. Sort of how I feel.
I watch as the blocks are placed, hoping that one tiny miscalculation will not do any further damage to my neck and face. This buzz persists for a little longer than the other two treatments. Last blast for the day and they unstrap me from the "slab". Oh what joy to be free…but only briefly, until the next day.
The treatments cycled through from “Day One” to “Day Three”, with each “Day” being allocated different measurements, then repeated until all twenty-eight were done. After would come eight “booster” treatments, done to only one side of my neck, to zap the primary tumour.
A few times I almost cried, but wouldn't let anyone see my tears. Keep smiling. Make jokes. Nothing wrong with me, only an inconvenience I have to put up with for a while. And the burnt flesh on my neck and face. When the skin began to heal, my neck looked liked a ripening banana, brown, speckled with burnt flesh, soon to fall off to reveal new skin, like a baby’s bottom. It appeared that my wrinkles had gone too!
"Something's wrong," I said one day to the technicians, after they had strapped me to the "slab". "Can't be. Everything looks fine, doesn't it Dave?" Dave nods. "No, it's all wrong. It's all too comfortable." I stressed, with more feeling. They all laughed, realizing I was correct, and readjusted the “other mask” and my position on the "slab".
One of them smiled, "You don't really need us anymore. You've been a star patient." Hearing them laugh made me feel good. The technicians and nurses work so hard to make you feel comfortable throughout the whole ordeal. It must be difficult for them, to deal with death and dying everyday, and always hoping that they can help cure someone, never have to see them again, in the best possible meaning of course!
I asked if I could keep my mask, as a reminder, a souvenir if you like. That was not a problem, but as the technician was giving it to me, she began to remove the masking tape which had the detailed markings penned. I protested, as I wanted it retained in all of its “gory glory”.
And now I can move on. The "other mask" has been retired to my wall, and it does look quite impressive, lined with aluminium foil on the inside. To me, it is a reminder of those seven weeks of everyday treatment, and months of emotions.