The CancerLand Bookshelf: Called Back: My Reply to Cancer, My Return to Life

Alysa Cummings
Alysa Cummings

Radiation. Crazy time. I thought I had forgotten those seven weeks. But reading Mary Cappello’s cancer memoir stirs up some distant radiation memories that are now playing back in my head like a rerun of some bad Lifetime movie. To fill in some of the missing pieces, I dig out my journal from 1999, read and reminisce about my CancerLand adventures from way back when:

I walk into the basement of the hospital and open the door marked Radiation Oncology. Inside the small room, chairs line the walls and desperately ill people fill the chairs. I sign in, take a seat and people watch for a bit…

Within minutes I learn my first euphemism: treatment. That’s the word of choice. No one ever says the “r” word: “radiation.” Just like no one ever says the “c” word: “cancer.” How weird is that?

Note to self: bring a book tomorrow. Might be the best way to get through this.

Here’s what I’ve learned so far. After the simulation is done, the staff shoots a quick Polaroid that goes in each patient’s file. This helps them pick out each patient from the crowd in the waiting room.. Names become irrelevant. Nicknames take their place. One of the techs tells me mine; I am Black-Baseball-Cap-Lady-Who-Reads.

One of the nurses tries to make friends with me. You sure like to read a lot, don’t you? I make a ‘huh’ noise to acknowledge her comment, but don’t feel very sociable to tell the truth. So I keep my head down, continue reading and silently turn the page. My body language screams, leave me alone lady, let me fade into the woodwork. In my chemo addled, radiation toasted brain here’s what feels real to me; if you don’t acknowledge me, then maybe I’m not really here at all.

But the nurse doesn’t give up on me quite that easily. The next day she lifts the brim of my baseball cap and says, Your hair sure is starting to grow back, isn’t it? I feel some fuzz under there.

What I feel is a red-hot surge of anger building in me and I need to take a deep breath or two to keep from hitting her. Could someone please explain to me how all these other patients are pulling off pleasant, pulling off cordial, pulling off normal social interaction as they go through radiation?

What’s happened to me?

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Excerpted from Called Back: My Reply to Cancer, My Return to Life

by Mary Cappello

New York, Alyson Books, 2009 | $15.95

…Being with others turns out to be the surprise feature of radiation. It’s another of many treatment details that no one told you to expect. To arrive at radiation is to arrive at narrative; radiation has a social aspect that is felicitous, at least for a day. Seeing many of the same people in the waiting room for such an extended period of days encourages conversation, and yet there are other forces in a cancer ward that compel people to share, to blurt, to confide, or to confess, and a great deal can be learned in just one encounter about one’s fellow journeyers, even if you never see each other again…

It only takes a few days of hearing people’s stories to realize I’m exhausted. Radiation causes fatigue, we’re told, though they’re not entirely sure of the mechanisms that bring it on…Clearly it’s the social aspect that is most draining; what Miriam Engelberg calls “compassion fatigue.” Which is perhaps why we distance ourselves from each other in waiting rooms by determining each other’s “type.” Each of us has a custom-made “mold” in radiation, and each of us cuts a type of a figure. I don’t know what sort of a telltale mark my fellow patients knew me by or as, but I recognized each of them in easily identifying ways as if to better place them, just as each of us took nearly precisely the same chair in the same part of the waiting room each day, like family members at a table, or kids who know their place in school. There was he of the weak salute, and she
who was, no question, the nicest person you’d ever want to meet. There was the dashing, gallant man who accompanied his perfectly coifed and nervous sister-in-law; there was the determined Spanish-speaking woman who didn’t wear a wig, and there was a woman I came to call, as if returned to elementary school, “blabber mouth” (but only to myself…).

If, at first, the sense of community that radiation offers brings delight to a beleaguered cancer patient, in no time at all, the community splits into cliques and even occasionally brings us all back to adolescent dynamics we thought we’d never want to return to, or had, at least quite long ago, “survived.” I wondered if it was the fact of having lockers that led one woman to begin whispering into the ear of another woman: was she inviting her to a party without inviting us all?