This post is brought to you by a discussion that occurred on Facebook amongst some of my friends. The question posed on one of my friend's status updates was "Do you have any tattoos, if so, what and where?".
I got my first tattoo when I was 22. She is a unicorn's head on my left shoulder. At this point she is really faded and at the very least, could use a color touch up, but things like bills and food tend to take precedence over tattoos. Responsibility. Bleh.
We are going to go back in the wayback machine and revisit my radiation treatment era for the next ten tattoos. I have ten India Ink dots tattooed on my chest, abdomen, shoulders, and back. These tattoos were done for two reasons, first being the necessity of properly aligning the lead blocks that protected my lungs, heart, and thyroid from excess radiation while they were blasting the shit out of the tumors in my lymph system. The second reason for the tattoos is they are a physical record of me having had radiation treatments and are there to tell medical professionals and practitioners that I have undergone radiation, when and if I can't tell them myself. This protects me from unnecessary exposure to x-rays and other radiation.
Yes, I have had x-rays, CT scans and other nuclear medicine diagnostics since 1987, sometimes they are necessary. They do try to protect me from unnecessary exposure, as I have had quite a dose of radiation way back then.
I remember when they first placed the dots, and all the times that they drew the gridmarks on me in permanent marker. This part of the post is probably going to be a little "squicky". I got really ookey vibes (as in "sexual predator") from one of the radiation therapy techs when I first started to have my treatments. It was not anything I could really wrap my hands around, but more of a gut feeling. My sense was, during the "drawing days" (the days they drew all the gridmarks all over my chest and back), that he was deriving some sort of sick pleasure from drawing all this stuff on my body. It was really humiliating. What made it worse was being told by the radiologist not to wash any of it off for two or three days at a time, because they were trying to make sure everything was lining up properly. I wore a lot of turtlenecks and high necked t-shirts in those days because I was embarrassed about the graffiti on my body. I will be forever grateful to M for helping me to still feel beautiful and loved while all of this was going on. He ignored the writing on my body because he wanted to be with me, and although we went our separate ways romantically, we have remained close friends to this day.
Radiation therapy for Hodgkins Lymphoma, at least back in those days, was a daily thing, Monday through Friday. I had two cycles of treatments. The first cycle was, if I recall correctly, somewhere between 6 and 8 weeks in length. During the first cycle of treatments, a rectangular area from my chin down to the bottom of my rib cage and including my entire chest was exposed. I had an entire month off between the two cycles of treatments. Midway through the first cycle of treatments, I noticed that the tech that made me really uncomfortable was gone. I never said anything, more because I had no concrete evidence than anything else, but I am guessing someone did have evidence and did say something.
The side effects of the first cycle of treatments were brutal. I was fitted by an oncological dentist, for trays, so I could give myself daily fluoride treatments, because my saliva glands were knocked out by the rads. As a consequence, there were things I could not eat, because they were too dry and since my mouth was dry as well, I had difficulty swallowing. This was when the mashed potato and gravy diet started. If I went out to eat, the restaurant had to have mashed potatoes and gravy, because I could at least swallow that. I started drinking Ensure® to get the actual nutrition I was missing because I could not eat. I lost weight (not that I had a whole lot to lose, because I was tall and skinny to begin with). I had ugly purple radiation burns on my neck and chest, in addition to the permanent marker graffiti. My hair fell out in all the areas exposed to the rads. On the back of my head, from the notch in my skull down, was bald. Silver lining - I did not have to shave my underams for months! The worst thing about this phase (even worse than losing part of my hair) was the fatigue. I slept for 12-18 hours a day. I would have slept for 24 hours a day if I could, because I was THAT tired. I could not predict, from day to day, what my energy level would be like. It was really frustrating. People would ask me, "Do you want to do such and such next Saturday?" and I would have to respond with, "I don't know, I can't plan that far ahead. Can you call me next Saturday, so I can see how I am feeling then?" The people closest to me totally understood, but it still hurt, that some people dropped out of my life because I could not make commitments in advance.
The second cycle was a little shorter in duration and exposed only a rectangular area of about 6" X 12" along my abdominal midline (to zap the lymphnodes in my abdomen along the aorta). I found the side effects of this cycle to be worse. Add nausea and vomiting to the mix of the above symptoms. It was at this time that I also went on antidepressants and serious antinausea medications. I was not suicidal, I just wanted to go to sleep and never wake up again. I was tired. I was sick. I was battle weary. And I just wanted it to be over, to feel better, and to live a normal life of a young woman. And it just was not happening. Cancer has a way of taking 'normal' away, forever. I sometimes still grieve the loss of normalcy.
The running joke, for years, about my little India Ink tattoos is that someday there will be an epic game of "Connect the Dots" played on my body. My friend, who had the Facebook status, told me I should tell people it is a constellation. I like that idea a lot.