Radiation: Day On

Two cheerful techs in blue smocks place a skintight, perforated mask over my face and shoulders. They fasten it and me onto the treatment platform with four loud snaps. They make some final adjustments, positioning me where the LINAC’s ( linear particle accelerator)  precision-guided beam of x-rays will destroy the tumor in my tonsil while inflicting minimal harm to the surrounding bone and tissue.

Claustrophobia surges through me. I exhale deeply, trying to relax.  The perforated mask limits my view to peep-hole fractions of the massive machine looming over my head. The LINAC’s squarish snout springs to life with a sound like a deck of metal playing cards being slowly shuffled.  A life and death game, with my life on the line. I smile weakly at my gallows humor and give the techs a thumbs-up.  

They clear the room. A dull yellow light blinks on inside the turret’s single glass eye. I close my eyes and escape inward—to the  mantras, meditations andvisualizations I’ve been practicing for the past weeks.  They’re from a book which cites hundreds of scientific studies demonstrating that a regimen of positive thinking prior to surgery or cancer treatment improves outcomes, speeds healing and recovery.

The shuffling sound stops and the machine begins to move. Its single eye locked on my face, it swivels and disappears somewhere beneath my right ear. It beginsto hum and in my peripheral vision I see it return, rising like a dark moon across my head. My oncologist told me that I wouldn’t feel anything for the first dozen treatments, but as the beam of high-energy x-rays hurtles through my head and jaw, there’s a faint sizzling, effervescing sensation on the tip of my tongue. It’s too real. The tidy Norman Rockwell postcard of healing I have been imagining implodes. Blackness floods the frame.

I close my eyes again and look inside for someplace to hide. There—beyond the spinning vortex of anxiety,  I notice a wink-sized space that seems untouched by what is happening. I recognize the feeling, a  familiar calm and wellbeing. A year earlier, on a bright October morning at my kitchen table, I was beginning a book on the inside-out understanding by coach and author Michael Neill which a colleague had given to me. Neill was introducing the idea, one of the pillars of Three Principles , that our experience of the world and our lives is created through thought, the experience of our thinking in the moment. At some point, my attention drifted to the cloudless blue sky outside my kitchen windowSuddenly,I was filled with a sense of total peace and well-being. I realized and understood that everything in my field of view, including the horizon, including me,  were of the same fabric—thought. It made no rational sense, but the inner stillness and sense of connection I felt were truer and more real than anything I’d  known or experienced. A voice in my head spoke: Your life will never be the same, a prophecy that continues to unfold to this day.

The LINAC swivels over the left side of my head and I touch that knowing again. My anxiety dissolves and a new understanding my body and my cancer emerges. I see, I realize, I knowthat energy of Life is on my side, working tirelessly and effortlessly through the instrument of my physical body to keep me alive and well.  Again, there is no separation between my sense of self – my “I” – and my body. An image forms in my mind—me standing in a beam of energy, which I understand is Life.  I know then that as long as I align myself with flow, allow it to guide me, I’ll always have my well-being. No matter what. Even if I die, I’ll be whole.  

Fastened to the table, all I have to do is to relax and allow the energy of life to flow where it will. The radiation will kill the cancer cells but it cannot touch ‘me.’ Mantras, meditations, affirmations – any attempt  to “help”—is mostly getting in the way.

As I relax more deeply into the feeling, the understanding expands into an equation: the energy moving through me is love. Life is made of love, life islove, and love is Life. It has no preferences; it supports all beings – every, single, living thing in the universe—including the growing swarm of cancer cells in my right tonsil. There’s a paradox here which I can’t grasp: If life is love and has no preference, why favor “my” existence over that of the cancer cells? In a flash of confusion that turns to horror, I grasp that to save “me” I must allow a part of me to be killed. 

I return inside. I let myself fall beneath these thoughts into the space of knowing.My confusion fades. No new words or ideas come, only a preternatural stillness and sense of peace. A small green bud of curiosity opens: the empty room, the humming machine on its rounds, the mask cradling my face and cheek bones, a host of atomic particles dancing across my tongue, my warm and easy breath—everything equal, all creations of  life and love.  I wait for what comes next.

September 12, 2109

This is the first in a series of pieces about my experience with HPV-16 throat cancer which began in February 2016. As of this writing, I am still free of cancer.