When I was in Junior High School, one of the groups I was a part of went on a beach day. I was disappointed that the whole day was overcast, until I got home and realized I’d spent enough time outdoors to give myself a second degree burn on my back and shoulders.
In an early meeting with the radiation oncologist, he said I would lose some hair from my eyebrow. He said there would likely be some redness and peeling from the radiation. He recommended calendula cream. But I didn’t put it all together into a singular experience.
It’s a particularly cruel thing that applying the cream to soothe your burning and peeling skin also highlights the hairs that are falling out. And sometimes pulls them out.
And the peeling. I’ve known people who love the peeling that follows a sunburn. My teenage second-degree-burned self was largely indifferent, and that’s pretty much remained the same for me on the few occasions I’ve been sunburned. But I don’t like it this time because it reminds me of what’s happening.
And it also got me thinking. Because logically I know that it’s just the outer layer of many that has been damaged by the radiation. Logically this is a small and natural part of the treatment. Logically it’s an outward sign of inward healing (listen up theology nerds).
And this whole mess isn’t necessarily logical. There are layers of history and baggage and emotion and guilt and grief and love and pain and hope and wonder and giggling and waiting and processing and learning and anger and more.
I hate that I have half an eyebrow. I hate that some of the hair on my temple has mysteriously fallen out in a way that looks like a barber got a little crazy with the clippers.
And I love the laugh-out-loud conversation with my sister who suggested all the ways we could draw in the eyebrow depending on the mood of the day (surprise, creepy clown and Vulcan were among many possibilities). I love the empowerment from the mysterious loss of hair in one spot that inspires me to consider changing style – in part to disguise and in part to reclaim ownership of my visual identity.
I am reminded of the many layers of this journey. The diagnosis of an admittedly mild cancer taken emotionally in light of my family history; the guilt that people I know who got scary cancer while I got pretty-easy-to-manage cancer (someone asked if this might be like survivor’s guilt); the chances to giggle at the BeDazzled radiation machine; the drastic scheduling changes to allow for daily radiation appointments; the seemingly-random radiation fatigue; the visible reality of radiation burn and the second-looks with increasing frequency; the incredible and grace-filled care and/or prayer from friends and colleagues and strangers.
Sometimes the layers make me cry. And sometimes they remind me of faith, of hope, of love.
P.S. Today’s treatment included a friendly & welcoming smile at check-in; they remembered my music preference & cranked it; they forgot I was tall and didn’t put the table extension on so I smiled to myself while I held my feed up on the table.