There is little to distinguish my early mornings in Boston from those back home in Atlanta. My prosaic routine involves a cup of coffee, a pastry, and a quick read of the newspaper. But which newspaper? In Atlanta, the choice is easy. There is no choice. I read the Times. Boston, by contrast, presents a dilemma. My daily calculus runs something like this: The Times is better than the Globe, but the Globe is still pretty good. Plus, buying the Globe will provide me with two precious quarters that I can hoard until laundry day. Globe it is.
After breakfast, I head back to my room and crank out a little work before walking the five blocks to the hospital. When one of the radiation therapists comes to the waiting room to fetch me for today’s session, we’ll likely exchange some small talk along the lines of, “Isn’t this heat oppressive?” (and it is hellish in Boston these days; take it from me) or, “How about that awful smoky haze from the Canadian forest fires?” Then we’ll walk about 20 feet down the hall to the treatment room. I’m always conscious of the backlog of patients and how busy the therapists are, so I do my best not to dawdle or to respond to the their good-natured queries with sentences longer than a few words.
The brisk pace continues in the treatment room. I put my things (eyeglasses, telephone, Globe) down on a chair, then take a seat on the table in the middle of the room. Right away, they’re fitting a metal frame with an attached bite plate over my head. If you can imagine what an orthodontic retainer designed by David Cronenberg might look like, you’ve got the idea. My mouth is small, and I can only clamp onto the wide plate by forcing my jaws open like a baby bird waiting to be fed. Should Mick Jagger ever have the misfortune of being afflicted with a brain tumor, he might take some solace in knowing that he’d find this part of the treatment a breeze.
After I get my mouth around the bite plate, they further fasten the frame to my head with a number of Velcro straps. With this contraption in place, I swing my legs up onto the table, and two of the therapists guide my head down until I’m lying flat on my back so that the frame, with my head in it, can be bolted to the table. At this point, I’m not going anywhere—I am part of the table until they decide to unbolt my frame. Next, they fit a clear plastic dome (like the Cone of Silence in Get Smart, only smaller) over my head and the frame and proceed to take measurements to ensure that the frame is positioned properly and the radiation beam will hit its target. The dome is perforated in various places, and one of the therapists shoves a pointy metal object into each hole in succession, calling out numbers as the instrument makes contact with my head: “T-88; V-79; Q-102.” Sometimes I feel like shouting, “Bingo!” But of course, I can’t shout Bingo or anything else because my mouth is full of bite plate.
That reminds me. One thing I’ve noticed is that the therapists—and they all do this—are fond of asking me questions while I’m connected to my frame and am unable to offer anything more than Quasimodo-like grunts, accompanied by trickles of drool. And they ask not only yes/no questions but questions that call for detailed responses. “What did you do over the Fourth?” “Where are you going next weekend?” That kind of thing. I wonder if other patients are able to carry on conversations under these circumstances. I know I cannot.
After verifying that the frame is attached correctly, one of the therapists removes the Cone of Silence, and the treatment itself begins. One of the therapists hands me a wad of tissues to sop up the inevitable stream of drool, but I know that I must not dab at my mouth while the radiation machine is zapping away. The treatment itself takes only a few minutes. The therapists swivel the table I’m lying on into the proper position, and then they leave the room. Suddenly, the machine above me, a linear accelerator, starts moving like a robot in an automobile factory, zapping away at my tumor. I feel nothing. The therapists come back in the room a minute or two later, reposition the table, and we do it all again. Each day, I receive five of these small zappings, each as painless as an X-ray at the dentist.
The entire procedure takes no more than 20 minutes.