I’m nervous about my first session. It’s the whole fear of the unknown thing. As I keep reminding my Dad who keeps asking me what will happen … I’ve never had radiotherapy before! Up to this point the doctors have led me to believe that I’m past the worst of it, the making of the mask. Well that turns out to be a blatant lie. Maybe if they told people how fucking terrifying the treatments are no one would ever go through with it.
I get my first hint of the unpleasantness to follow when the nurse calls my name and sits Dad and I down in the smaller waiting room (there are so many waiting rooms). ‘Now a lot of people find the first few sessions quite distressing. The mask is going to feel really tight on your face. But don’t worry, we’re watching you the whole time and we’ll give you a bell to ring if you need a break.’ She notes the panic on my face and puts her hand on my arm. ‘Don’t worry Bonnie. This first session goes for longer than the others and it’s by far the worst.’ Way to comfort someone who is clearly freaking out! At this point I’m asking myself why I only took 1 Valium instead of 2.
She takes us into the radiotherapy ‘chamber’. I don’t know how else to describe it. There’s a wide swinging gate that only comes up to our knees that she unlocks. Why is it such a weird height I wonder to myself. Is it so they can hurdle over it in case of an emergency to rescue a patient in distress? Will that patient be me in 10 minutes’ time?
Oh yeah … torture chamber. That’s why I’ve thought of the word chamber. The nurse walks me over to the ‘bed’ I’ll be lying on. I have to step onto a mini ladder to reach the long plank. I place my feet into slots at the end and they place something under my knees. What freaks me out the most though is having to place my head into a contraption that holds it in place. How does the mask fit into all of this I keep asking myself? Then it appears. Okay, I’m thinking, they’ll just sort of place it lightly over my face which won’t be too bad. ‘Now remember’, says the nurse with the comforting bedside manner, ‘the last time you had this on it would have felt much softer. It was a warm piece of fabric basically. It’s much harder now and we’re going to have to lock it down over your face.’ Lock it over my face?! How the fuck can they do that?! Then it dawns on me. There are clips on the side of the mask that lock into the contraption that my head is currently placed in. Fuck! As they place the mask on me initially it doesn’t feel too bad. But it keeps getting tighter and tighter as they make adjustments. I’m panicking big time and it’s getting hard to breathe. But if this is as bad as it gets I can handle it for 10 minutes or so. No…it’s about to get a lot worse. ‘Now we’re just going to clip it in so it’s going to get a lot tighter okay Bonnie. Just take a deep breath, you’re doing really well.’ It’s hard to describe the feeling that follows but it’s right up there with the worst of my life. It’s so tight that I feel like my head could burst. And it’s squashed so hard up against my nose and my mouth that I’m having trouble breathing. My Dad notices and tells me to try and slow my breathing down. I do and this feels minutely better.
Everyone has to leave the room when the radiotherapy actually begins. This is really comforting. How I got through this initial session I’ll never really know … but I guess the most important thing is that I did. I felt exhausted and sick from the stress of it all afterwards. For the second session the following day I took two Valium. But it was shorter and less distressing so I went back to one for the third. Because I’m not keen on becoming a prescription pill addict, for my next session on Monday I’m going to try rescue remedy instead. Wish me luck…