It’s been several days since my final radiation treatment. I shared my final check-in online along with a photo of my mask and graduation certificate. I was overwhelmed by the emotions from that day and from the many responses. In some ways, I still am.
It started with doing the advanced work to get the kids off to school early so that Beth and I could go together to the appointment. When we got there, I followed the normal routine with the special bar-coded card at the terminal, except there was a very small description after the scan that said “Last Tx” noting that this would be the last appointment. And when they called me back, the radiation technician immediately noted that it was the last appointment.
I think in the moment I was wondering why I wasn’t more excited. Or really, why I wasn’t excited at all. I should be!
As I laid down on the table and realized that this time they remembered my music preference AND that I’m tall (!!!), another radiation tech asked if I planned to ring the bell in the waiting room. To be honest, I dodged the question. “Is that a thing?” I asked. But internally I was having an actual struggle about it. Because I know it’s a thing. I know that it’s a tradition in many hospitals and treatment centers that patients completing radiation and/or chemotherapy ring a bell in celebration. But I didn’t have scary cancer. I didn’t have the kind that might really be worth celebrating when the treatment was complete.
But then the tech said something that yanked me out of that internal dialogue. She reminded me that even if I didn’t particularly feel like celebrating, that the bell was a sign of hope for others in the waiting room. In other words, it wasn’t just about me.
And so I knew that I’d ring the bell.
So they finished putting on the mask and turning up the radio and covering me with the warm blanket. They left the room and turned on the beDazzled radiation machine. It buzzed and whirred and moved and blasted radiation in the ways that it always had. And then I was done.
They handed me my radiation mask and the three techs walked with me back to the waiting room. They announced to the entire room that I had “graduated” and handed me a certificate thoughtfully adorned with a picture of Chucks (they’d noticed a number of times that I would wear various colors of Chucks any time I was there). I struggled to maintain a smile, uncomfortable with the attention because I still wasn’t sure I deserved it, and focused on the smiles of the people in the waiting room. I hoped that they saw light at the end of the tunnel. I hoped that they knew hope.
Beth walked me back to the car. And before she took me out to breakfast, I cried. It was a release of anxiety and stress and fear. It was relief, and it was a chance to breathe and to realize that I was done.
But some of it still lingers.
One of the things I remember about my mom’s cancer treatment is that her hair grew back differently than it was before she lost it. The color was what I noticed, though I wonder if the texture was different too. My wife’s aunt battled breast cancer with chemo and radiation, and after her straight hair fell out it grew back curly.
Even though it’s been several days since I stopped my treatments, the looks and the questions haven’t changed. The redness over my eye still invokes questions about whatever recent fight I must have gotten into. The hair loss along the side of my head makes be feel both cold and self-conscious. I find myself wearing hats and sunglasses more often.
I am still a bit changed. I am still a bit scarred. I still feel conspicuous.
A friend who survived breast cancer after chemo and radiation wisely cautioned me that there can sometimes be an emptiness when treatment is done. Because you don’t see those who have intimately journeyed with you every day: the nurses, the techs, the doctors, the receptionists, the familiar faces in the waiting room. Just as there is an adjustment, a sudden and (for some) unexpected acclimation to treatments and schedules, there must also be a re-adjustment and a re-acclimation and a new norm.
But it’s different from going back to how things used to be. It’s not the same. The experience changes you subtly. And I expect that even when the hair grows back and the redness recedes, I will still feel different. To be honest, I hope I still feel different. Until then, I will breathe and remember that I am done.