Columnist’s cancer treatment: Crossing a bright, glowing line
December 17, 2015
Driving home from the hospital on the New York Thruway after her first radiated-iodine treatment, my friend Holly set off the Homeland Security device.
When a state trooper pulled her over, she held a letter up to the window explaining that she was radioactive. "His face," she says, "was something else!" The cop jumped back and waved her on.
Holly had, as have I, been diagnosed with thyroid cancer. We both underwent surgery to remove the entire thyroid and were directed to take a dose of radiated iodine, aka "RAI," afterward. Thyroid cells are the only cells that absorb iodine; when iodine is spiked with radiation and ingested, it destroys remnant thyroid tissue.
"We'll meet you over at Nuclear Medicine," I was told, in casual tones, in advance of the day.
To be iodine-starved beforehand, I was put on a strict diet for three weeks. No milk, egg yolks, soy, seafood. No foods containing salt (almost everything does). No canned foods. No breads unless homemade with non-iodized salt. No restaurant meals. I tried, the first night, to make my own nut milk in the blender. The next morning, staring into a cup of river-water coffee full of chunks, I knew it was going to be a long three weeks.
The only good thing was finding the diet so difficult that, although dreading the RAI, I grew eager to get it over with.
Friends, especially once they knew it was OK, buoyed my spirits with radiation predictions — that I'd pick up mind-reading or super-athletic powers — and jokes.
"I thought I saw a UFO last night but it was just you up ahead on the trail."
"There's a light at the end of the tunnel. Oh, wait, it's you."
And this favorite, from an old friend: "You'll be good as new after all this. Just a little hotter."
But the prize might go to my wicked pal Andrew, who checked in and, when I asked when his baby was due, answered, "April 3. Will you still be alive?"
A caring RN drew a calendar to help me track appointments, meds and procedures (on the "Stop Diet" date, two days after the RAI, I wrote "BINGE"). The RAI date approached and sounded not just serious but ceremonial. The kind RN and a physicist would attend, as would two nuclear techs, to verify and check the dose. Three days of sequestration at home would follow.
"So," I wrote my family on the jokey chat group Stupid Cancer that my sister Lucy had started, "an RN, a physicist and a nuclear tech go into a bar …"
Upon arriving at the hospital's "Nuke Med," I thought I was ready. With the RN and physicist standing by, a nuclear tech read me a list of risks and possibilities such as colon cancer, damage to salivary glands and taste, etc. I was told to keep my hospital bracelet on for four days.
Then the tech, who was wearing two monitors, brought out a white lead canister.
"Is that it?" I asked.
Giving me a cup of water, she opened the canister and, using a long hemostat clamp, lifted out a black capsule in a clear vial. She said to take the pill quickly rather than hold it in my hand. This was to reduce exposure to others. The capsule was long and black — mottled, it seemed to my skittering eyes, like ancient stone — and banded in the center by what to me might as well have been the rings of Saturn.
I yelled an f-bomb, and they laughed.
Everything in me rose up against taking the pill; in retrospect I can see the feeling was near panic. The act seemed huge, irreversible. Tertiary fears raced around somewhere: What if I dropped it?
I hesitated, upended the vial, threw the pill and the water down, and swallowed.
I was radioactive now.
The RN took the cup from me and washed her hands. The physicist washed his. We all left the room, and a man coming around a corner drew back. I was taken to a small room, given a liter of water, and told to drink and urinate as much as possible. The door closed. In that hollow-eyed moment, I wondered aghast how I ever joked about any of it.
My phone pinged. "You are radioactive," my older son texted from college. "Cool."
He added, "Don't go near any of my stuff."
I chuckled and felt a little bit better. It was almost over.
Femaelstrom appears on the third Friday of each month. Alison Osius lives in Carbondale, where she is a climber, skier and magazine editor. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.