The First One


My wife, Michelle, comes with me to the hospital for moral support, but she won’t be able to accompany me very often as I’ve arranged the series of radiotherapy appointments to coincide with when she drops the kids off at school. I will have to go into London for these appointments alone. It’s the right thing for me, as I need to mentally prepare for these sessions. If Michelle or anyone else keeps me company, I’ll be distracted from concentrating on getting through intact and surviving cancer. I have to be strong and single-minded. I refuse to let cancer or radiotherapy rob me of independence.

I check in at the reception and go to a concealed waiting area. About a dozen people are there, mainly patients. No one speaks. Most look drawn and sick. I am the youngest by a good margin. When it’s my turn, I’m called into the treatment area, a large white and bright room. The four radiotherapy operators introduce themselves, show me the enormous radiotherapy machine that looks like a sort of space weapon leaning over a bench for the patient to lay on.

Two operators retreat to the control room with a window overlooking the proceedings while I take my top off and lay down on the treatment bench. The two remaining operators place the green mask over my face and strap me down. I hadn’t expected my head, neck and shoulders to be pinned to the bench so I can’t move. It’s so tight around my neck, I find it difficult to breathe through my mouth so I revert to drawing air heavily through my nose. The mask is also pressing my eyelids shut so it feels like someone is strangling me while poking their thumbs into my eyes.

The operators tell me to stay calm and I slow my breathing down as they mark the mask with target lines to aim radiation at. When they finish, it’s explained that, if I’m in trouble, I should raise a hand. Then I hear footsteps leave the room to a warning alarm from above. There’s a whirring sound as the IMRT machine moves over my head. My pulse is thumping loudly as I try to take steady breathes. Then there’s a loud clunk and an intense “Ddduuurrrrr!” sound as radiation shoots through my brain. I remain still. The machine moves around above me, left to right, clicks and whirs. The process repeats about six times. The blasts are never the same length of time, but there are one or two shorter ones, then one about forty-five seconds long, followed by several between fifteen and five seconds.

The machine stops and I hear the operators’ hurried footsteps come in to release me. The mask is pinged away from the bench and I sit up in the glare of lights overhead. They make sure I’m okay as I put my T-shirt and jumper back on and return to the waiting room to see Michelle. The first session wasn’t actually too bad, but I’m wary about the cumulative effect of the radiation. I’m optimistic as we make our way back to South Kensington tube station. At home, I tick the first of thirty sessions off the radiotherapy appointment list.

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