Thursday, November 03, 2011

November 3, 2011 - Radioactive Blood

"Is he strong? Listen bud,
He's got radioactive blood.
Can he swing from a thread?
Take a look overhead.
Hey, there,
There goes the Spiderman."

When my brother, Jim, first read an email from me explaining the details of today's radioactive iodine treatment, he said he hoped I'd tell him if I turned up with any Spiderman powers.

Bill, a minister friend of mine, mused that maybe when I come down from this particular mountain, my face will be shining like Moses'.

Another colleague, also named Bill, wondered if we'd be singing "Shine, Jesus, Shine" in church on Sunday.

That's what family and friends are for, you know: to make fun of you at any opportunity.

There's a lot of radiation humor out there. It's a black humor, of the sort that speaks to our free-floating cultural anxiety about this invisible peril, undetectable by anything except a Geiger counter (which almost none of us happen to own, in any case).

From the precautions the staff here at Memorial Sloan-Kettering took with the four little capsules I swallowed at about 10:30 am today, you'd think I was imbibing Tincture of Black Death or something.

As I write this, I'm ensconced in a special treatment room here at MSKCC, whose walls, I understand, are lined with lead. The room can accommodate as many as four patients in its row of comfy chairs, but my only partner today is a twentysomething woman I'm calling Andrea, a Hodgkin lymphoma survivor who, in a curious coincidence, has a medical history remarkably similar to my own (successful lymphoma treatment just over 5 years ago, and a subsequent thyroid cancer diagnosis that came to light through routine follow-up scans).

After undergoing scans earlier this morning for the purpose of measuring the "uptake" of the slight dose of radioactive material we swallowed yesterday, we each had a briefing from Chris, the pleasant and attentive radiation safety officer I met yesterday.

Olivia, the nurse who, yesterday and the day before, stuck me in the derrière with my Thyrogen injections, has been hovering around, seeing to our creature comforts. She's our flight attendant for this little excursion into Cancerland.

Soon after that, Dr. Dunphy and the resident working under him, Dr. Ashima Lyall, entered the room, reverentially bearing The Dose.

I have to say, never in my life have I experienced such an elaborate ritual surrounding the act of swallowing a few pills. Laid out on the standard hospital-room table before me was a disposable pad and a couple of pairs of latex gloves. Like a pair of priests preparing to handle the sanctified host, Dr. Lyall and I donned our gloves. There was a smidgen of liturgy: she asked me to repeat my name and date of birth and compared the patient number on my paperwork with her own.  Then, she opened the soup-can-sized lead canister in front of me and, using a pair of the biggest tweezers I've ever seen, lifted out a small plastic vial with four ordinary-looking white capsules tucked inside it.

She explained that the number of capsules corresponds with my prescribed dose of radiation, 120 millicuries. Olivia and Dr. Dunphy looked on as Dr. Lyall used the giant tweezers to lift out each capsule in turn and place it in a little plastic cup nestled inside a lead-lined holder.

Four capsules, four swallows of water, and the deed was done. Drs. Lyall and Dunphy removed the lead-lined sacramental vessels, directed me to take off my gloves, and had me place them alongside Dr. Lyall's on the disposable pad. Then, the pad was folded up like an altar-cloth and whisked away to wherever they take low-level radioactive waste here at MSKCC.

Then, the team went through the same procedure with Andrea, my partner in treatment, before bidding us adieu.

Precisely two hours after our pill-swallowing ritual, Andrea and I will be released from our lead-lined holy of holies for our respective journeys home.

In my case, Claire will drive me, with me sitting as far as possible away from her, in the back seat on the passenger side. Once we return home, we're supposed to avoid any prolonged physical proximity to each other, within a radius of about 3 feet. Fleeting contacts are OK, they tell us, but no sitting together on the couch or sharing the same bed.

It seems that a monastic asceticism follows the Rite of the Dose.

Within 24 hours, Chris informed us earlier, 80% of the radiation will have made its way out of my body, mostly through the urine. (Drink plenty of fluids, yada yada.)

My instructions are to return to the mountaintop on Monday morning, for a set of follow-up scans.

I don't think my face is shining. But, you never know.


Anonymous said...



suzsc said...

Glad you had a companion to share this part of your journey. I'm sure "Andrea" was glad to have you with her, and vice versa. Prayers for you both. XXSuz.

Betsy de Parry said...

Carl, Thinking of you and hoping everything that has to do with cancer is behind you soon. Betsy