No Matter What

It’s my twelfth radiation treatment.  But today I’m tired and sore.  I’m having swelling under my arm, just beyond my armpit and reaching out about 4”.  Imagine a soft piece of bread dough attached to the underside of your arm.  Doughy.  Warm.  Fluid filled almost like a blister.  But not a blister.  Kind of couple the two together.  It’s a swelling that’s visible, but it’s numb to the touch.  I avoid touching it because of the strange sensation of numbness on the outside combined with pain from the pressure.  It hurts to touch even though I can’t feel that part of my arm.  I’m frustrated because it seems to be getting worse with every treatment. 

Today I’m being measured for a boost;  a special type of electron blast that is given later in the treatment process and is delivered closer to the surface of the skin.  The cheery therapist asks me how I’m feeling as she escorts me to my first stop, the MRI room.  I explain in an irritated and tired voice that I’m sore.  My arm hurts and is swelling, I continue.  I’ve shared this with others over the last two and a half weeks, nurses who’ve explained the pain as being a result of my surgery.  I’m losing patience.  How can that be, I wonder?  My surgery was nearly 9 weeks earlier!

I go into the MRI  room hoping to just lie down and rest on the table for a while.  I have plans to spend the day with my husband and daughter once I get this out of the way.  I’m anxious knowing that they’re waiting on me.  I feel bad that I’m the cause of a late start to a day away.  Let’s just get a move on, I think.

Then, as I lie on the table being moved and adjusted I start to feel overwhelmed by sadness.   Once  I’m alone my tears just pool up in my eyes.  I want to be back in bed with Don warm by my side.  We’d made love early this morning and I think about that, about him.  I relive the rush of our bodies together, the panic I feel right before I lose my breath, my face warm against his chest. The way he holds onto me.  “You are drop dead gorgeous, Angela,” he tells me.  “I’m lucky you didn’t know that when you were younger.  A guy like me would never have had a chance if we’d met back in high school.  You’re a woman who just gets more and more beautiful as you age.   I absolutely love you…” his words get muffled against my skin.  I can’t believe them, but I love to hear them.  I wish I was back home mixed in the sheets we’d wrestled under instead of here under this piece of cloth,  a small piece  of wire affixed to my incision, bb’s placed on my skin somehow.  I don’t know how they don’t roll off of me.  Guess I’d been too lost in my own thoughts to pay attention to what the therapists had been doing.  I’m cold.

The therapists leave me to do their work.  All of a sudden I feel totally alone and I start to cry harder but silently.  I’m not supposed to move which makes me more frustrated.  One of the therapists had told me I wouldn’t be able to chew my gum during the session.  Have you ever tried to control your crying without the aid of your hands?  I couldn’t wipe my face.  I couldn’t wrap my arms around my chest and hug myself.  I was exposed and fitted into my treatment form, unable to move for fear of screwing up the planning and scanning.  I feel stupid for crying.  I try to control my breathing as a way of comforting myself.  My left arm grows more and more numb, the lack of sensation reaching into my elbow now.  I start to talk to God in my mind.  As I pray I see myself being lifted from the treatment form and into his arms instead.  I visualized myself being held in His arms, my head nuzzled into His neck.  I imagine His face pressing against my forehead. He kisses me tenderly, like a mother or father would kiss a sleeping child in their arms.  I start to cry harder into His shoulder.  He comforts me.  He calms me.  I ignore the whir from the machine.  I feel an electrical shock inside of my breast, perhaps on the incision.  I cry out of aggravation and confusion.  I hold my left thumb in my right hand above my head, fitted into the form.  I’m not in pain.  I’m just tired.

The therapist comes back into the room.  She tells me the doctor wants to talk to me about the numbness, swelling, pain.  Suddenly it seems like everyone is standing over me.  My doctor comes up and realizes I’m crying.  “What’s going on? Hmm?” he reaches out his hand and rubs my arm.  His voice is warm and tender, his eyes intense and focused.  I lose it.  I blubber out something about the pain in my arm, the lump of numb dough I feel.  “ A lump?” he asks visibly alarmed.  “I need her to sit up.  I need to see her sitting up,” he directs.  But my session isn’t finished yet.  I still need a new tattoo and some extra markings.  I’m embarrassed that I’ve been caught this vulnerable.  Embarrassed that I don’t know how to talk.  Ashamed that I’m crying in a procedure that pales compared to the needles I’ve had embedded into my chest.  “Grow up.  Behave!” I chastise myself.  I feel surrounded and more afraid than before.  I’ve been caught off guard.  How should I act?  What do I do now I wonder?

My planning if finished and I am sitting up, legs over the side of the table, gown covering my chest, back exposed.  I realize how large the room is.  I see that the doctor and therapists could probably have truly seen me during the process.  Seen me cry.  Seen me trying to compose myself.  I sort of feel spied upon, but understand they’re all there to help me. 

I’m not often able to ask for or even accept help from others.  Therapy notes can explain that issue to you if you’re interested.  But it’s a problem I have.  I don’t often know how to be comforted so I avoid occasions where it might occur.  I joke and tease as my way of walling out interactions until I can assess a situation for its vulnerability quotient.   

Dr. Mantravadi  walks out of the control room and approaches me as I sit on the table and asks to see my arm.  He touches the doughy painful numb spot.  “That’s from the sentinel node biopsy,” he explains, his Indian accent annunciating each word carefully.  I want to protest.  I’ve heard that line before.  I don’t believe I have lymphodema.  I’ve been careful to follow the post-operative instructions.  The numbness and swelling had subsided each day since surgery.  It’s got to be from radiation.  I want to scream, “What the hell are you doing to my body!”   I try to matter-of-factly argue that my arm is getting worse each day, not better like it had been prior to radiation.  I can only correlate the radiation with my pain.  I’m not buying what he’s selling and he knows it.

“I’m not touching your arm.  I’m only radiating the breast.  Here, let me show you the pictures,” he walks back into his control room.  He flips through a binder as he continues to talk to me.  I’m afraid now that I’ve  gotten into an argument with a doctor my surgeon and oncologist raved about and referred me to.  But he’s not angry.  He’s…something else.

“Here,” he says as he takes a seat right next to me on the table, holding open a binder with images of my breast, my arm, and lines entering into my breast that I don’t understand.  “Here is your breast.  See?  Here is your arm.  I am doing nothing to your arm,” his tone is tender, compassionate, imploring.  He looks directly into my eyes. 

I don’t understand what’s happening to me.  I put my head in my hands as I fumble with words.  He listens.  And I look to him and see that he is really looking at me.  He’s not angry at my frustration.  He sees me.  He really sees me, this mess of a woman who’s distraught and confused and angry and scared.  He reaches his hand out and places it on my back.  His hand is touching my skin not clinically, not judgmentally, but humanly.  Despite the fact that I probably outweigh this slightly built man by 100 pounds at least, he is not scared of me, he is not angry with me.   He is there for me.  I share my thoughts and he cheers me on.  I explain my shame and embarrassment and he dismisses them.  “I want my life back.  I was starting to reclaim it…” He interrupts me, smiling, “You have your life back!  This pain,” he says motioning to my left side.  “Ignore it.  It will get better.  Keep your running.  You’re doing everything I’ve asked you to do.  You’re doing everything you’re supposed to be doing.”

I see him this time not as a doctor, but as a true healer.  I think Dr. Mantravadi is someone who is engaged in his life’s calling.  I see him as God’s answer to my tearful prayers less than an hour before.  As I listen to him I realize that my body is not just being treated for early stage breast cancer.  My life is being treated for early stage ignorance and pride.  The radiation, the energy is breaking through my walls of fear and loneliness in a way that nothing else could.  God wants me open and alive.  He is walking me through this trial for a chance at a better life.  A richer, fuller life.   I want to be the woman God wants me to be because I know His ideal of me is better than the one I could build up myself.  I experienced God’s healing through Dr. Mantravadi’s  outstretched hand placed compassionately on my back. 

I think of my life.  So many mistakes, missteps, misguided missions.  And I think of how God forgives my transgressions and keeps them apart from Him as far as the East is from the West.  I recall how Don explained that to me months after we had started dating.  “The significance of the East from the West is that the two will never meet.  It’s impossible,” he’d told me.    It wasn’t some beautiful concept it was a matter of fact.  God sees us as new every morning.  He’s breaking through my walls.  He’s not giving up on me.  He has a plan for me!

On my ride home, eager to get our day away trip started, I hear Kerrie Roberts sing, “No Matter What”.  I’ve chosen it as my anthem for the remains of this part of my journey.  I hear it and realize that it’s not just me calling out to God, but Him crying out to ME, that he’ll never let me go.  He’s been in every atomic particle that enters my body.  He created me.  And I am HIS!  You’re HIS, too!

Join me in praising Him!