16 years ago this month I concluded six months of chemotherapy for my first bout with Hodgkin’s lymphoma and began five weeks of daily radiation treatments.
While the chemo was challenging, it was just the beginning. My ensuing radiation treatment to kill a tumor in my chest was much more difficult: a horrifying experience. That whole medical practice was run like an assembly line designed to maximize profits. No concern for the patient. A couple years later, it closed and the doctor in charge abruptly left town. Some lawsuits supposedly were filed against him for mistakes and mistreatment of other patients. I don’t know the details, but you get the picture.
When I finished my 35th daily treatment on December 31st, 2003, I walked out of the building with the mask as a remembrance of how bad the experience was and how resilient I was able to be. The mask was used to stabilize my head for 20-30 mins everyday while they gave me the treatments. The staff was always impatient as they waited for me to take off my upper body clothes and lie down on the cot with my arms raised over my head so they could fasten the mask over my face. My veins were already weak due to all the chemo I had just finished. Very quickly my arms would become heavy and fall asleep and I’d feel paralyzed. They had to guide the radiation machine according to a map drawn on my chest with thick black sharpies. They weren’t nice about it. As they drew all over my chest they talked to each other about what they were doing, but they never addressed me whose face was inches away. They never treated me like a human being – just a piece of meat. It felt like torture. Awkward. Helpless. Vulnerable. Uncomfortable. Humiliating.
When the radiation machine came down, it hovered just inches over my face. The sensation was that of being buried alive. My heart would race and I would sometimes break out in a cold sweat and fight the urge to panic. It was hard to override my urge to kick and scream. I’d close my eyes and try to pray. That is when I would get some comfort. Like Jesus on the cross, my comfort also came from His mother, Mary, who never left His side. I would just ask her to help me calm down and imagined her hovering over my forehead. Her presence didn’t make it easy. There was no supernatural feeling of peace or anything like that. But somehow, it helped. Somehow, she helped me through it. I am grateful.
I planned to keep this mask forever as a motivator and reminder to be tough. Unfortunately, after only 16 years the plastic has become brittle and is quickly falling apart. It had to go. So today with an unanticipated surge of adrenaline and anger that even surprised me, I threw it in the trash.
Gone, but never forgotten. Jesus was with me in those difficult days. He sent me His mother to comfort me. He was truly my strength!
“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for Thou art with me. Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me.” – Psalm 23
“I can do all things in Christ who strengthens me.” – Phil 4:13