My neighbor and friend, Pete, with his radiology team at the University of Minnesota. He’s giving a thumbs-up which reflects his positive spirit.
Over the last few weeks I’ve been privileged to accompany my friend Pete, a couple of times, to his radiation treatments.
It brought back memories of when I took Becky to her radiation treatments and the many emotions that I thought I’d packed away. But this was different. I knew what was going on and, most importantly, it wasn’t Becky. While I was concerned for Pete’s welfare, I was an observer.
Every cancer is different and every patient is too. The story that unfolds is unique and yet all too common.
I was walking down the alley after a light snowfall when I met Pete. He was shoveling his driveway. I stopped and we chatted about the weather, reminiscent of the movie Fargo, and life in general. As I was about to go on my way, Pete quietly told me that he had cancer and that he was about to start radiation and chemo therapies.
I couldn’t believe it. Pete is one of the healthiest and active people I know and, yet, he had the Big C. Pete’s attitude, then and now, is very positive. He understands that the journey he is on has unknowns and that nothing is certain. Perhaps because of those uncertainties, Pete consciously decided that he would face it head-on cheerfully. He told me that being positive can manifest itself as an improved immune response and help the body fight the disease. A positive attitude also helps those that love and care for him.
Soon after talking with Pete I started getting occasional email progress reports that he sent to family and friends. They provided brief insights into his life as the treatments continued.
I offered to accompany Pete to treatment. Remembering Becky’s hard time with her radiation and chemo treatments and how despondent she could become, I anticipated that Pete would at some point begin to feel the effects of his treatments. To my surprise, Pete’s side effects were mild, although I suspect Pete would not agree since he had to give up coffee, wine and spicy food. He was able to drive himself to the hospital usually with his wife Kathi.
When I suggested taking pictures, Pete was immediately for it. So was the staff at UMN. Pete told me that all the staff that he interacted with were very caring. That was my impression too.
In Pete’s case, treatment consisted of External Beam Radiation, radiation that, depending on the type of machine, can be either a stream of highly energetic particles or beams of X or gamma rays. The beam is focused directly at the tumor. All these types of radiation are dangerous to all living cells and that is why treatment requires extreme precision.
To insure that the treatment is on target it is necessary that the machine be aligned precisely and that the tumor does not move. To begin with, small calibration marks, crosses or dots, are tattooed on the body. They are used to align the machine. In the picture above there is a faint line of green light crossing Pete’s head and across his pillow. The reason the light is there is because he has not been positioned in the machine yet.
Next it is necessary to make certain that Pete will not move during his exposure to the beam. Depending on where the tumor is in the body, there are different molded forms that the person lies in. In the picture there is a form under Pete’s legs. Pete is also holding a red rubber ring which he will hold onto with both of his hands when in the machine. This will help stabilize his arms and upper torso.
Pete said of his treatments, “I’ve been getting a 10 minute cat-nap every day …”
Pete and his wife Kathi, daughter Gretchen, and son Nick.
There is a ceremony when a patient completes their treatment. They ring the bell that is in the waiting area three times.
About a week ago, Pete rang the bell. Patients and staff applauded and cheered. Pete told me that the following day he collapsed, “Like you do after studying for an exam, where you’ve worked hard for weeks and your exhausted.”
As always, Pete is optimistic and already thinking of drinking coffee and eating spicy food.
National Cancer Institute, Fact Sheet, Radiation Therapy for Cancer.