Before they aim the radiation at your breast, they put tattoos on you. This seemed like a big deal to the doctors, so maybe they’d already met a lot of hysterical women just done with getting their tumors cut out, who lost their cool over the tattoo stage. At any rate, everyone with a lab coat kept saying “The tats are just the size of freckles. No big deal.” And looking sideways to see whether I agreed.
What the heck. So much already happened, from quirky mammogram (“don’t you want a piece of fruit?” the nice pink-smocked volunteer kept asking) to long-needled biopsy (“yes, it’s cancer, I knew as soon as the needle hit it”: pathologist), to the fast-track “day surgery” to cut out the crumb of malignant cells. I didn’t witness that part, they knocked me out and I woke up with neat little white bandages taped in place and miniature ice packs like frozen round ravioli fastened over each wound (two; one on the left breast of course, one under my arm to snag a couple of suspicious lymph nodes—I wondered whether they wore their hats pulled down over their eyes, or just ski masks).
Anyway, there I was, staggering out of recovery and very undisturbed because those surgery drugs include long-term (like, two or three days) painkillers and some happy juice as well. And the kids—well, they are 40 and a bit, but today that’s still the kids— say proudly, as they drive me home, “The surgeon says you don’t have cancer any more, it’s all gone.”
Which makes it pretty strange that all these doctors and nurses and social workers elbowed me directly into six weeks of every-weekday radiation. “It’s routine; it’s necessary; you won’t mind, it’s easy.” And then the tattoos. (But you said the cancer was gone. Oh. Metastasis, that’s, like, a Greek word, right?)
Maybe you don’t have Jewish in your family. I only have a half dose of it myself. But that’s enough to know tattoos as control items, blue smudged numerals in a line down the soft skin of the forearm. Rebellious Jews indulge in tats; history huggers abstain. Me, the image of a sagging “tree of life” drooping down my aging derriere kept me away from tattoo parlors. HIV threats, too, with each possible needle prick. So, long story short, these “freckle” tattoos are my first. I’m a virgin. Bite me.
Wouldn’t you think a freckle would be maybe reddish brown, or mahogany toned? Let’s blend in a little. Ooops, guess the point (for the radiation technicians) is, make it stand out. “Here comes a little pinch.” Four times over, north east south west of the pothole in the terrain where a nodule of menace used to sit and doesn’t any longer. Check the mirror while changing back from the ironed cotton “gown” to street clothes, and: Green. I ask you, what is the point of a first tattoo that’s four green dots? I’m not oriented.
Next morning, the techs are all happy. “You have your tattoos! Lie back, close your eyes, put your arms up over your head and grip the wooden handles. We’re going to line you up and aim the radiation! When the red light goes on, it’s firing into you.” No, they didn’t really say “firing into me.” But they meant it. I got it. Just in case I missed it, though, I felt one of them drop a rubber ring over my feet to bind them together. No wiggling under the x-ray beam. “When you’re ready, take a deep breath and hold it.”
Recap: Lying under a flame thrower’s narrow beam. Tattooed with target markers. Back arched, knees slightly bent, arms and feet in place for sacrifice. Is there a blade? Nope, just the red light— my eyes are closed, determined to space out instead of paying attention, but I can smell sharp acrid terror from my underarms and see the roasted red pepper color of that hazard light through my eyelids. “Now breathe normally.” Normally? Who remembers normal like this?
If I’m Andromeda bound on the cliff and Perseus is coming in time to stop the monster from devouring me, I wish he’d get a move on. The technicians aren’t expecting him though. Each time the buzzer sounds, the radiation slices through me again. Remember to put salve on both your front and back, they repeat: The exit wound is on your back. We’re burning you.
Did I mention I’m the second writer this year on this steel table, under the hot red sun? The other one’s already dead from his cancer (not breast but lung, black stain of cigarette tar, was it worth it for his novels? I’m thinking he got them published, but no Pulitzer, no world tour or major film contract). The techs love writers. Wow, this autographed stack (small) of my novels, “Cancer Center Copy” inked on each title page. No, not tattooed. Not signed, either—if I die, a signed copy is worth more. I’m not providing the incentive for a grim ending.
Anyway, Perseus must have flown off someplace else. “You can put your arms down now.” Here’s an extra tube of salve, the burns are going to blister and itch. What would you agree to do, for five more years of writing time? How about for ten? Do you need two hands to type? This could affect your arm muscles. If the radiation energy gets turned up, you’re in the “boost” part of treatment. Graduating from Andromeda to Hera maybe. Or Joan of Arc. Light my fire, burn me again. “Take a deep breath and hold it.” Just the right amount of air to lift the tumor “bed” away from the heart. It’s going to cook the heart muscles just a little bit, and the lung too, but don’t worry, you’ll be fine. Don’t worry? Are you crazy??
Week five, and swallowing is no longer a piece of cake. Some of the flaming arrows are toasting my throat, which is fighting back, swelling and sore. “You may lose your voice,” the nurse offers in sympathy. No problem: even voiceless, the tattoos whisper to the techs where to aim. By camera. The techs, of course, shelter behind a lead and concrete wall. Ready, set, action. The buzzer again, the red eye of the machine. Even with eyes closed, I feel the massive monster turn around, rise, change direction, its face toward mine, lips open: a whisper of warm air across my breasts. “A little deeper breath. Good. Hold it.”
Back on my feet, sock-tiptoeing to the changing room. A man waiting his turn. Breast for him too? Long red wound on his neck, “how are you,” a croak in reply. The tech arrives to lead him to the fire and asks how he feels. Whatever signal hides in his croak, she’s okay with it, chirps empathetically, “That’s how it’s supposed to feel, you’re doing fine.” Drive home? Impossible to explain to husband, he’s already terrified, can’t bear to look at the scars. Not my Perseus at all, but maybe the Great Bear aka Big Dipper, lumbering along beside me. Growling now and then. In Greek. Sure.
Online support team, details of how to ice and salve and keep going. You know the Internet monitors your conversation, right? An email arrives from an aid agency, photo like the man in the waiting room but with more bandages. “English teacher on this island can’t speak—tumor out, radiation needed, but no machines here. Give five dollars.”
I give ten. And again. It’s money on the altar. What next? Maybe I should find some lamb’s blood or incense. One in eight women takes this path. No wonder the dust, from their feet. Their feet, about to be bound on a steel table.
Those four green tattooed dots. Constellation. The Pleiades, the Seven Sisters. Now I own my piece of the night. I’m burning.
Beth Kanell lives in northeastern Vermont, with a mountain at her back and a river at her feet. She writes poems, hikes the back roads and mountains, and digs into Vermont history to frame her “historyhinged” novels.