Well, we’ve made it. Sort of.
We’ve reached the first finish line. There will be other finish lines, for sure. But this is the first, and it was an emotional one to cross.
Today was DorkyDad’s final radiation treatment.
Session 35 of 35, every single one hard earned, every coloured box on the countdown chart crossed off.
We have been warned that the next fortnight can be the trickiest part of the whole thing.
DorkyDad’s body will continue to respond as though it is being treated for another couple of weeks, and the side effects will continue to worsen during that time, but the structure of daily appointments will be gone. No nurses to keep an eye on him, no GP on site, no regular weigh-ins. (We don’t even own a set of scales at home.)
Now more than ever we have to be vigilant about hydration, about pain management, about skincare.
But with all those caveats, for now, he is done.
It is surreal that it has been less than three months since this whole thing started. So much has happened in that time – so much has happened even since the halfway mark a few weeks ago – but we have done exactly what we promised, which was one day a time.
There are so many new things that we have adapted to. Daily texts from the cancer centre to run through a COVID symptom checklist. The drone of the Nutribullet as I batch make smoothies and try to sneak in extra calories – nut butters, honey, protein powder – without making them so thick they’re undrinkable. Games of cribbage in the evening, as DorkyDad becomes too tired for television, too fuzzy eyed for books. The bubbling soup sound of a steam vaporiser in the corner of the bedroom each night.
Every day has brought an experience that warrants an entire blog post in itself, and if this was an informational blog, perhaps that’s how I would have approached it. What to expect at your first radiation session; what side effects arrive in weeks 2, 3, 4; what foods to try at each stage of treatment…
But this has never been an informational blog. It has always just been a place to tell our stories, so that’s what I’ll continue to do.
There is the story of our final night out before the treatment started. The launch of a cider club at Willie Smith’s Apple Shed. I plotted behind the scenes for there to be a birthday cake with DorkyDad’s name on it, and in a very 2020 move we almost had to cancel at the last minute because our babysitter was in isolation waiting for COVID test results.
There is the story of DorkyDad having his radiation mask fitted, way back in August, one tense muscle twitching in his right arm throughout. As I sat and watched, making nervous small talk to help the time pass faster, that was when I realised what an astonishing process this is, what a mindblowing blend of complexity and simplicity.
The mask fitting required some of the most high-tech, cutting edge, specialist medical equipment in the world. It also required Sharpies, Blu tac, and several plastic rulers, reminding me in that moment of DorkySon’s many craft projects. Most importantly, it required incredible medical professionals – people who do everything within their power to make you feel comfortable and at ease. When all this is fading in the rear view mirror, I think it is that kindness that will stick with me the longest.
There is the story of the woman who emailed a few weeks ago to ask if I had availability to proofread her PhD thesis. I emailed back saying that normally I’d love to but that for reasons of family health, I probably wasn’t the best person to take it on. When I looked through my sent items later, I realised I’d got her name wrong in my response, which is probably evidence enough that I was not in a proofreading frame of mind.
But there has only been one important job, really, these last eight weeks. And only one person who could do it. That was DorkyDad. He was the one with the unenviable task of showing up, every day. Being treated, every day. Going home, and forcing himself to eat enough that he could be treated again the next day.
As the process has gone on, the staff at the centre have revealed more and more – not just about what to expect, but about how DorkyDad is faring. We are told that he is the only person in there just now receiving 35 sessions, that most people aren’t pushed past thirty.
With seven days to go, they let slip that it’s unheard of for people to reach this stage without needing to be hospitalised at least once to receive IV fluids.
There is a disconnect between how horrendous DorkyDad feels and how well they think he is going. But almost on a daily basis, new tools are added to the kit. A new medication to help dull the pain. A new skin cream to help him push through another week. A new word of encouragement that he can do this, that he really can do it.
By the front door of the cancer centre, there is a bell on the wall, with the words “I’ve conquered this moment.”
Last week, for the first time, I saw someone ringing it. An elegant woman, accompanied by her husband. Some people choose to have a celebratory ding-dong after their last treatment. Others wait for another milestone, and that is what she was doing – joyfully marking the news that she needed no more appointments for 12 months.
Her husband took photos of the special moment. Then he tried to take a video, but forgot to hit record and they had to do the whole thing a second time.
“Goodness me,” the woman laughed. “The celebration is taking longer that the treatment did in the first place.”
All the while, everyone in the waiting room applauded and smiled, and some of us (mostly me, actually) had a little cry. Everyone in there understood.
Before DorkyDad started this process, I thought I knew what cancer treatment involved. But I didn’t. Not really. I had no idea the intensity. No idea the resolve that is required.
In that waiting room over the last eight weeks, I have watched so many people coming and going. Strong looking tradies in shorts and Blunnies; a young mum one day, her own mum there to watch the baby; a beautiful woman with electric blue pumps to match her electric blue blouse, quiet tears coursing down her cheeks; the old fella who used to drive Metro buses and joked to anyone who would listen that it was a great job apart from the passengers… all the women in their silk turbans, and the men making multiple, nervous trips to the toilet, older people clearly finding their way around a new smartphone or tablet. So many – so, so many brave men and women, with their water bottles and their books, their bundles of knitting and their Pfizer branded cool bags.
Every day as I sat and waited for DorkyDad I was surrounded by such enormous strength and courage.
And every time he came out, smiling through the hurt, telling me what song he’d chosen for his treatment session soundtrack that day – what blast from the past he’d treated the young radiation technicians to – I was awed by his strength and courage too. Bravery is an oft overused word – much like journey – but sometimes there is no other word that works.
DorkyDad is brave. And today was his final treatment.
There is work still to do, before this is really over. Healing, rehabilitating, building strength. Follow up appointments, and a long, nervous wait for the scan that will tell us if it has all been worthwhile.
But the first bit (the most difficult bit, I hope) is over.
Now it is time to rest.