Radiation Good Times: Face Masks, Tattoos and Transformer Robots
Let’s talk about the mask first. I was informed that I’d be making a custom-fit mask for use during the radiation treatments. I told the team that I already had a mask, a deaths-head skull from Halloween. Worn with a broad-brimmed hat, it was the perfect compliment of otherworldly ghoul and dapper man-about-town. I was told this wouldn’t work. All right then, I proposed a Hannibal Lector mask. No. Okay, I get it — this is a teaching hospital. How about Spongebob? This is when the negotiations broke down. Mask or no, evidently radiation sessions aren’t about festive times. In fact, I’d have no say at all in the mask I’d be wearing. You’ll be as surprised as I was to learn that the reason for the mask isn’t for collecting candy or pulling pranks in the Administration section of the hospital; it’s for firmly positioning my head and upper body in the same angles, every day for the next month or so, to ensure that the radiation beams hit the same target area every time. Also to my disappointment, there were no studio designers plastering strips of cloth wet with clay to my face. Instead they brought out a sheet of beady plastic netting, which was warm and damp like a hot towel after a shave, and stretched it across my face. It slowly cooled, shrunk and dried, adhering to the contours of my face and head. Once the mask was dry, it would each day be attached to my face and connected to a kind of plastic pillow upon which my head rests during the treatment. They would also strap my arms and ankles down with velco strips. Like you, I started to worry about what kind of weird kink radiation technicians were into.
Another procedure that had to occur before the treatment began was the application of tattoos. I have six new tattoos. Unfortunately, the techs have no more creativity with tats than they do masks. There were no hearts, anchors, celtic crosses, armbands or nonsensical asian ideograms. Dots. Just dots. The dots were placed during the simulation, while my mask was drying. The techs has the CT machine running on and off throughout the procedure and would approach with a red marker to make an X — as in X marks the spot. They would then approach with ink — I couldn’t look down but could feel the ink dribbling down my shoulder or rib. They would then stick me with some kind of needle, marking the tattoo in the spot where the radiation beams would focus.
Then we were off. I had my first actual radiation session yesterday, and will have another today. We’ll do this every day of the work week for a minimum of twenty days. As I noted in a previous post, we’ll be radiating two different areas — one around my right clavicular area and the other around my trachea where it branches into the left and right bronchi. I was expecting, for some reason, to receive the radiation from a machine that looked like a CT machine. It didn’t. The type of radiation treatment I’m receiving is called Intensity Modulated Radiation Therapy (IMRT). IMRT allows oncologists to break apart the primary radiation beam into thousands of smaller beams which can be manipulated and precisely targeted to the contours of the cancerous cells. This, in turns, allows for varying levels of radiation intensity — in essence, turning up the juice on cancerous cells and minimizing the damage on healthy tissue.
Rather than the CT (or PET) design — a massive yonic sculpture of modern art — the IMRT machine is more like a less-menacing, bigger-headed Transformer. Yes, the robot warriors who invade earth. Or something. I haven’t seen the movies, but I have seen the toys upon which the movies are based. After you are stretched on your bench, mask clamped down and wrist/ankle cuffs securely fashioned, you are eased underneath a hulking grey-blue machine. Initially you are looking up at a thick, rounded metallic head, as if the creature is bending over and looking down at you. There are perfectly cut, round plates of steel surrounding a squared face of plate of glass with long, rectangular iron teeth inside. The teeth shift in and out depending upon, presumably, the orders of the technicians. I don’t know. I just found myself fascinated in the way they would move in and out, the rows facing each other from left to right, leaving large gaps or closing the gaps almost entirely. It certainly had an alien feel, lying there in your thermoplastic mask, with this hulking face over you. Eventually, you grow accustomed to the scene and you start to drift off. It’s about that time that the two massive arms on either side of the machine start whirling and the face begins rotating around your body. I started from my reverie, hoping I hadn’t jolted or otherwise shifted in a way that would throw the radiation beam off track and blasted a whole in my jugular. Hallelujah for the head mask.
As it whirled and stopped in the slow awkward rhythms of robotics, clicking and whirring a bit as it turned, I began to feel like I’d stumbled into somebody’s washing machine. However, once again, it got into a rhythmic groove and I started to dose off. And the teeth would be above me again, chewing and working their way back and forth in the machine’s big, glass maw.
I was surprised when it was over. I felt nothing. There is no red beam shooting out of the machine into your body, singeing the skin or even giving a little heat. Nothing at all. I was kind of disappointed. I wanted a red badge of courage; all I got was some relaxation time. If I had one suggestion to improve the experience, it would be to set up the face of the machine, where the glass plate sits squarely above you for much of the time, with cable television. The Golf Channel, maybe HBO, would certainly enhance one’s stay. For the women, there’s certainly no reason you shouldn’t be able to get your nails done while you’re lying there. Finish it up with some cool cucumber water, and I bet the hospital could charge a lot more for the experience. I’m sure it’s not all that expensive now.