Frankly, I didn’t expect any real changes when I turned sixty. The prospects of this milestone birthday were more mental than anything. However, the discovery of cancer cells in my pap smear and the news I’d probably have to have a hysterectomy changed all that. Since I had the surgery on Wednesday following my Friday birthday, the two events melded, and I was off on a very strange trip indeed.
The surgery and its aftermath were quite a journey in themselves. I found myself experiencing some things physically I just never imagined having to do. One was giving myself daily shots in my stomach of a drug called Lovenox (to guard against blood clots). They weren’t a big deal, just rather surreal to me. I was pleased with myself that I was able to do it, although I got a wee more skittish as my battered stomach returned to something like normal. I thought I was injecting myself incorrectly because of the nasty bruising I had all over my belly, but the nurse at my second follow-up visit said this was common. The sharps container on my bookcase bristling with used syringes (the needles covered with a pop-out plastic sheath for protection) gave me a start every time I glanced at it.
Now I’m very well recovered and have moved on to the radiation treatments. The kind recommended for my situation is called high-dose rate (HDR) vaginal brachytherapy. I’m extremely lucky in that I have to undergo only three total. However, it’s the elements of the procedure that have added to the bizarre nature of my first weeks of being sixty years old.
When I arrived at the radiation department, the nurses checked my vitals, then led me into a room with a CAT scanner. The idea was to take a good look at everything before they planned my treatment. When I padded toward the scanner, a sheet wrapped around my nether regions, a whole group of concerned attendants, plus my radiology oncologist, surrounded me to begin prepping me for the procedure.
I was positioned with my knees bent and my feet flat on the scanner bed. Then they produced something that looked like the light bulb from an old-fashioned desk lamp (especially if the lamp was on growth hormones). I must have gasped or tensed up; the nurse standing near my head patted my shoulder and said, “It will be easier if you take nice, deep breaths.”
I winced when the applicator was first inserted, but after some poking around they decided it was too big. The second one was a little less uncomfortable but I was certainly aware of it. Once they were sure it was the right fit, the attendants started tying me up in what felt like a string garter belt, then they taped everything into place so the applicator wouldn’t move during treatment.
I didn’t have to hold my breath during the scan, which was good. However, soon I glided back out from under the device and was told, “We need to push the applicator higher up.” Some prodding and pressure, lots of un-taping and re-taping, then a successful scan.
“We’re going to move you to a stretcher,” they announced. “Let us do all the work. You just lie there and be heavy.” As I was turning this wording over in my mind, several nurses and attendants grabbed the edges of the sheet under me and slid me over to the stretcher.
“We’re just going to let you wait right here while we plan your treatment,” someone said as I was wheeled into a hallway. I kept refusing the poetry book I’d brought with me, saying I’d just doze in the meantime, but my oncologist said, “Oh, you’re going to get bored. You’ll be here at least 30 minutes.” Someone tucked the book next to me, someone else covered me with a blanket, and then I was alone, staring at the hallway ceiling. I think I did doze lightly at one point, but I was afraid of falling asleep. The applicator was still inside me and extremely uncomfortable, putting a lot of pressure on my vagina. I was afraid if I fell asleep, I might involuntarily try to push the damn thing out.
I’d relented and tried to read my poetry book (not easy without glasses and holding the book up above my face) when they returned for me. “The next part’s easy,” someone promised. I was wheeled into another room. One of the technicians pulled out a long, long glass tube which held several thinner flexible tubes. She extracted one and inserted it through the applicator in my vagina. She snapped something into place, then everyone high-tailed it out of the room. “We’ll be watching you on the monitor,” my oncologist promised. “Wave your arms if you have any problems. We’ll see you.”
She also turned on the radio for me. I wasn’t choosy which station was on. “Maybe some nice relaxing Beethoven?” she suggested, but the station was playing pop music, which was fine with me. One of Madonna’s early songs began to play, although I can’t recall which one. I had a mental image of her in her Desperately Seeking Susan drag and under the circumstances felt really annoyed by it, I’m not sure why.
After a few minutes I wondered how things were progressing; it was awfully quiet except for Madonna’s Minnie Mouse vocals. The technician popped in, patted me on the shoulder, and said, “It’s still going to be a few minutes. They like to double-check and triple-check the numbers.” Then she slipped away again.
It wasn’t too long before I heard a humming sound. The thin tube inserted into the applicator hummed, too, then vibrated. I assumed the radiation was beaming its way to the top of my vagina, the area most in danger of recurring cancer. The humming decreased, then increased a couple of times, and then it was over. Suddenly a man with a wand attached to a machine that looked like a Geiger counter appeared and swept the wand over my lower body. “Hello,” he said, almost sheepishly. “Goodbye!” The wand hadn’t triggered any weird sounds, so apparently I wasn’t “hot” and of no danger to anyone around me.
They undid my garter belt, extracted the tube and the applicator, and assured me the next two sessions would be easier and shorter. “We have our plan in place now,” they said. I slipped behind the curtain in the corner, dressed myself, and was directed toward the parking garage at the end of the hall. I didn’t feel anything one way or another–except relief that the “pressure was off,” literally speaking.
However, my radiology oncologist did inform me that after the final session, I’d be given a vaginal dilator to work with at home. This is to prevent scarring that could cause stenosis and block doctors’ views during examinations.
A vaginal dilator, huh? Looks like being sixty is going to continue to be a very, very strange trip.