Inside the Radiotherapy Machine

I closed my eyes and tried to breathe, slowly, methodically, calming, but calm didn’t come to me. I struggled to swallow, but the saliva just caught in the back of my throat. The hard plastic mesh of the mask pushed down on my neck and prevented me from swallowing. It also held my jaw in place, so I could not cough to clear my throat either. The spit just stuck there, held in limbo between spitting and swallowing, threatening to suffocate me. The logical part of my brain knew I wasn’t choking; I was breathing after all, but the panic overwhelmed me, and, despite my attempts to remove it from my brain, it stormed through my other thoughts and convinced me that I was going to die here on the table.

So this was it, I thought. I got through all of this, the cancer, my surgery, even five weeks of radiation treatment, only to die here, inside the Halcyon for one of my final radiotherapy sessions. How absurd would that be? Surely the gods would have let me die on the operating table instead. You are not going to die here, I told myself. Breathe.

My hands curled into fists and flexed, fighting against the fetters that held me fast to the bench. I heard the whirl and chunk of the machine around me as it pushed and pulled me into position before projecting particle beams, x-rays ripping through my jaw to irradiate and raze the offending tissue on my tongue.

My legs lifted and shook. I almost cried out, “Get me out of here!” but stopped myself for fear of embarrassment or rebuke, and worried as well that an interrupted treatment would mean laying longer strapped to the slab, suffocating slowly in a sea of spit and anxious thoughts. My toes curled up and down.

I opened my eyes then and tried to find the little ‘X’ that marked the middle of the machine, a symbol of safety, a point of focus to pull my persistent panic away from the brink. My vision clouded with worry, I could not see the character. I breathed again, realizing then that I had been holding my breath, and it came fast and shallow. My vision blurred further, and I shut my lids to clear my eyes.

It will be over soon, I said in my mind, holding back the fear that washed over me. I will not fear, my thoughts repeated, drawing in the image of Paul Atreides facing off against the Bene Gesserit’s witchcraft. Fear is the mind killer. This was my own box of agony into which my hand had been thrust. Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration. I turned my thoughts to my purpose. I will face my fear. I was here for healing, the chance that these weeks of torture would prevent the recurrence of the creature of chaos that cancer had created by corrupting my own cells, turning them against me in rebellion. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. That knowledge was the Gom Jabbar against my windpipe, holding me in obeisance, hoping I could help myself exhibit my humanity, my ability to rise above animal instinct, instinct which incessantly urged me to tear myself free of the platform and make my escape. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. The machine jerked and clattered above me, then whirred with a sharp metallic whine. The platform beneath me shifted and shuttered, shoving me a few centimeters to the side. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. I breathed, my breaths still shallow but more in my control now, and held my breath for a moment between gasps. Only I will remain. I finished the mantra and squeezed my eyes shut more tightly.

The table moved, and I felt with relief the displacement of the device as it delivered me into the wider room. My face remained smashed against the mask as the machination removed me from its mouth. I kept my eyes shut for an interminable time as I listened for the technician to open the portal and traverse the tile to liberate me from the ordeal.

And when she unhooked the last latch on the mask and lifted it from my face and neck, I gasped a great grateful intake of gas. The platform locked into a lower position, and I sat up immediately, ecstatic to be in the open again.

As I rose from the bed, I was shaking with the adrenaline that pumped through my veins, still urging me toward escape, still afraid, still unaware I had been finally freed from the frightening flat. I gathered my belongings and absentmindedly thanked the operator before trepidatiously making my way out through the cavernous cleft of the treatment room. I didn’t breathe freely until I was aboveground and outside the hospital, following in the footsteps I had found so familiar the past few weeks to the Family House, where my wife awaited me. I was wan and weak, wanting nothing more than to wait out the weariness that filled me. And I cried. The full force of the feelings that had arisen in a flash before flowed through me and told the tears to tumble from my eyes in torrents.

She held me then, and my disquiet slowly settled.