On the radiation table, there is a moment when I can see the top part of my body outlined by green light. This is not the first time this year that I’ve imagined myself as a cyborg. I’m all alone here, in a circle of radioactive technology for the few minutes it is not safe for the techs to be here. I imagine growing more robotic, more resistant, less weak.
Once you walk through the doors of this place you see passive reminders that unless you work here you have cancer, or you care about someone who does. There are tissue boxes everywhere, encouraging posters, receptionists with seen-everything eyes. The music is the worst thing. As two large robotic squares circle my body releasing radiation, emotional love songs play over the speakers in the ceiling.
“I can’t liiiiiiiiiiveeeee if living is without you …”
Bad messaging, I think to myself. Yesterday it was another emotional love song. I tell the tech that it seems like a different music station would be better for cancer patients, and she tells me that they tried to change the station to jazz, then classic rock and people rebelled. I don’t get it. I don’t want emotional catharsis on the radiation table.
My song preferences for times like these are usually distracting and full of power. Aretha Franklin. Dusty Springfield. Beyonce. The Black Eyed Peas.
When treatment is done, I slide off the table and walk through the fish room. This is the treatment center’s name for the waiting room where strangers sit in hospital gowns staring at a large fish tank, ignoring the ancient magazines and complex puzzles, waiting their turn for their own cyborg moments.
I don’t find the fish calming. I don’t find the doctors reassuring. One of them avoids me ever since I told him that I didn’t appreciate a man I’d met five minutes ago telling me to look at my situation with a glass half full mentality. I couldn’t explain to him why optimism can feel like a burden.
On my way to the dressing room a woman with no hair chats with a man who says that he has 66 treatments.
“Not bad”, she says to him, “you can do that easily.”
I stop in my tracks. I am on treatment ten of twenty. While I will be living with my condition for years, I’m not staring down the end of my life, yet. I’m not done resisting this place.
I toss my robe in the bin marked “soiled robes”, pass the coffee and tea room, and head for the door. The exhaustion hits on my way to the car, like weights have been added to my bones.
This is why people are scared of cancer. It feels inescapable. I start the car, pull out of the parking spot, and head towards home feeling the radiation through my whole body. I go home and lay on the couch and fall asleep immediately. I wake up knowing I have cancer, consider what vegetables I have for dinner knowing I have cancer, consider my following work day in light of cancer.
20 treatments. 66 treatments. However many there are. Once you find yourself in the fish room, it’s what you do.
Emma Margraf is a northwest writer whose work can be found in Folks, Entropy, the Tiferet Journal, Manifest Station, and elsewhere. She has an MFA from Antioch University in Los Angeles and lives in a small town with her girlfriend, three cats and a Great Dane. Find her on Twitter @emargraf.