Karla

When you get diagnosed with cancer, you meet a lot of other people who have or had cancer. It’s like another family, and we are all connected through our struggles, through our mortality, through our fears, through our perseverance, through the change and uncertainty that cancer brings.

For many people, cancer is a one-time diagnosis. They get treated and it doesn’t recur or metastasize. Others start off with a stage 4 diagnosis, or have a lump removed and then months or years later find it’s spread to an organ.

Sooner or later we lose someone to cancer from this new family. When one of these new family members dies, it’s a loss for all of us.

Karla was one of my radiation techs that I saw every day for six weeks. She was a breast cancer survivor and a constant reassurance on radiation days. She had the bedside manner that you wanted next to you when you were in that very vulnerable position on the radiation bed. She was comforting, smart, and sensitive. Your cancer treatment team isn’t there to be ‘best buds’ with you and there are only a few people during my treatment that I could say I truly connected with beyond the patient-caregiver relationship. Karla was one of them.

I saw a lot of robotic doctors and nurses while I was sick, people who say mmm hmmmm mmm hmmmm without really listening. Karla was real. She was transparent. She had compassion and a deeper understanding of exactly what I was going through because she had been down that path. She saw herself in me. I saw myself in her.

When I went back to my radiation oncologist for my six month check up, Karla was gone. She had died the week before from cancer that had come back with a vengeance. When the nurse told me all that would come out of my mouth was “No!” and “Why??” and “I don’t understand.” I couldn’t wrap my mind around the fact that the Karla I knew had died from her cancer. The grief I felt as I drove away from the hospital was overwhelming.

I didn’t know Karla well, but it was like I knew a part of her well. Sometimes there is something that connects us to someone else that is indescribable. I was in the middle of treatment, so I don’t remember the things we talked about or the things she told me. When the radiation nurse told me that Karla had died, I couldn’t remember the details Karla had shared with me about her own life. I felt guilty about that, and selfish. And betrayed: by the lack of details in my memory of her, by life, by death.

Only a few weeks passed between Karla’s cancer relapse and her death. I knew Karla had dogs, not children. I knew she was smart, compassionate, and present. I knew she was sad when she talked about cancer, whether it was mine or hers or someone else’s cancer. I knew she had a husband that she loved who loved her supported her. When I visited her obituary page, I saw how many other people loved her, too, like I did.

We’re all so caught up in our own lives, and in the what ifs. I was just trying to get through treatment, and Karla was there for me. I looked forward to seeing her every day. For all I know she had already been diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer. I never considered asking. I thought she would always be there.

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I’ve been nuked

Every road I go down in the cancer journey seems to lead to increased vulnerability. I sit in rooms half-naked and get poked, prodded, weighed, and measured by dozens of strangers. There is a blind reliance on strangers that didn’t exist six months ago that I will never get used to. At some point in each appointment I have to disconnect. There is only so much information I can absorb in one sitting. Thankfully Amelia is at these appointments to pick up my slack.

Radiation has brought up a lot of emotions that I did not expect. I feel uneasy, exposed, and overwhelmed. Just when I think I’ve got my emotions around cancer cataloged and organized into tidy little volumes, some brand new situation surfaces and feelings bubbles up. I simply refuse to ignore my feelings. It does no good for me, and it certainly doesn’t make anything go away. I’d rather ride out the emotions that come with the territory, there’s far more for me to learn on that path than one of of blissful ignorance.

Radiation is some serious shit. A physicist is now part of my treatment team. Beams of radiation blast my chest wall, collar bone, and lymph nodes, annihilating any rogue cancer cells that happen to be hanging around. The mission of radiation is destruction and/or interruption of fast growing cells. I will most likely have a skin reaction. It may look like a burn, but it will not technically be a burn. With burns, damage occurs from the top down through the skin layers. Heat burns more layers with each degree and eventually blisters. Radiation works differently. It damages skin from the bottom up: damaged basal cells (cells below your skin layers) move upwards to the surface of the skin and ulcerate. It is not a burn, and does not act or heal like a burn even though it looks like one. But it all sounds a little creepy if you ask me.

For the next six weeks every week day I will lay topless, hands over my head, taking deep breaths and holding them three separate times for 45 seconds while I receive radiation doses. I take a deep breath to pull my heart away from the radiation beam as much as possible. This treatment will have a whole new healing process that can take two years to recover from physically. The radiation oncologist said two to three years, but I’ll take two, thank you very much.