2012: Love in the Time of Radiation

Happy New Year, seven days late and seventy-several dollars short.
I promised Becky Breslin I’d write something today, though I have nothing to unpack from my head and dump onto this page. It’s barren in there, a desolate corridor, a wasteland of windblown nothingness.
We’ve been in Pennsylvania for more than two months now, and what do I have to show for myself? A quick recap of our visit in the home country:
My sister, Debbie, finished a withering, six-week radiation regimen Wednesday. In all, she completed 30 treatments in the supine position in the searing gaze of LINAC (linear particle accelerator) No. 4 in the bowels of the University of Pennsylvania’s Medical Mall (what I like to call the Comcast Radiation Coliseum in the Lenny Abramson Cancer Center in the Ruth and Raymond Perelman Center for Advanced Medicine. Two things this place does not want for: rich peoples’ excess money and suffering cancer patients). Above, Max rings in the new year in a whole new way by helping Aunt Didi sound the bell at the Radiation Coliseum to mark her successful navigation of the grueling gauntlet.

The Lady in the Mask: While Max watches nervously from the hallway, Debbie prepares to undergo intensity-modulated radiation therapy (IMRT) for head and neck cancer.

What else to say about the past two-plus months? While my sister has waged the battle of her life, I’ve done what I do best: watch in dumb wonder while the invisible sands of time slip through my idle fingers. Sure, I’ve driven her to the University of Pennsylvania Medical Emporium in West Philadelphia on more than a few occasions. I’ve made dinner a couple times and run some errands. But it seems like I’ve done precious little with the time I’ve had on my hands.
Among my notable accomplishments: I made my sister cry on Christmas Day. Poor wretch. She’s encountered all manner of physical and psychological distress over the past three months, and she’s blessed with a brother whose lack of feeling would make Mr. Potter blush.
She had two surgeries in a five-day span in October, the first to remove cancer from her tonsil, the second to extract malignant lymph nodes from her neck. She had a month to recover from the twin surgeries before the unforgiving battery of radiation treatments began to lay her low. Her neck is aflame with five-alarm agony. The inside of her mouth is a blistered, ulcerous, pain-infested mess. Ditto her throat. Her skin is splitting in spontaneous spasms, leaving behind a hundred little paper cuts. She can’t eat much more than soup, and even that is an excruciating and time-consuming process. What she does manage to eat comes back to haunt her in angry waves of acid reflux. The next couple weeks will be difficult, as recovery will be slow and the side effects of the radiation treatments might worsen before they begin to subside.
I just talked to her on the phone, and this is what she said:
“I feel like my neck’s a marshmallow someone held over a fire. Every time I turn I can feel it ripping.”
She’s a walking tribute to the wonders of America’s pharmaceutical pusher men. Every time she encounters a new form of radiation-induced discomfort, one of her doctors
blithely prescribes another drug. Gabapentin, Nexium, Oxycodone, Oxycontin, hey!
She recently moved up from oxycontin to a 25-milligram Fentanyl patch and then a 50-mg patch. Fentanyl, I read somewhere,  is 100 times more potent than morphine.
Not sure if it’s true, but the potency isn’t in doubt. The other night she fell asleep in the middle of turning the light off. When I looked in to check on her, and Lucy (her neurotic standard poodle) freaked out, she bolted awake and had no idea who or where she was. This happened several times that night.
Seems like a good time for a musical interlude:

But she should begin to recover, eventually. And we will hang here as long as we can make an appreciable difference.
In addition to making her cry on Christmas, which I think you have to admit is a pretty notable achievement, I incited her to scream at me on New Year’s Eve. Lots of sibling pathology goes into the combustible mixture, to be sure, but you have a to be a pretty special kind of asshole to make your cancer-stricken sister cry on Christmas Day.
But we’re all doing something akin to OK. My mom turned 82 last month, and she’s starting to show signs of age. I’m not sure how much of it owes to the accumulated stress from Debbie’s situation, but she’s struggling. She has her own battles with my sister, and I’m afraid the considerable stress she’s facing have been overlooked as the main focus of our days falls on my sister and her treatments.
And I don’t know how any of us would have gotten this far without the angelic intercession of the aforementioned Becky Breslin. She’s been an unwavering source of succor and emotional support for Debbie. She’s unfailingly patient, spectacularly tolerant and ridiculously good-natured. I don’t know what any of us would do without her.
And I hope we never have to find out.

Mom and urchin pose for the camera at the Radiation Coliseum on Tuesday, during Debbie's penultimate IMRT session.

Don’t have much else to say now. We’re hanging at Chez Breslin for the weekend, and that’s always a safe haven. Maybe I’ll get this journal back on its feet, maybe not. There are still lots of stories left hanging, stories that germinated before our travels aborted.
Maybe in another month or so we’ll be on the road. We’ll see. …

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One Response to 2012: Love in the Time of Radiation

  1. Arnold Lytle says:

    That’s heavy-duty stuff, Wally. Couldn’t agree more on the good qualities of Becky – which probably has a great deal to do with what a delight Max is. And as far as your candidacy for ogre-hood, it’s easy to see your sister was in a pretty good mood with Max on New Year’s Eve.
    I, for one, am looking forward to more of your tales. It’d also be great to see you and the family. I know you’re doing a great job in a supporting role with the Wallingfords.
    On a lighter note, how’re the Sixers doing? Pretty well, by the looks of the standings. And, if not, at least you have the Wizards providing a soft cushion at the bottom of the conference.

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