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Sue BB


I think I can, I think I can — I can do anything for 15 minutes.

Nothing could have prepared me for the hijacking of my body the way cancer did. How long had those mutating cells been slowly taking over my lung? Had I been feeling healthy for a year, or two, or three, on the outside while inside my chest a mass began to build and then spread.

It has taken me weeks to absorb the diagnosis. It could have been better. What could I have done to find this sooner? Why did I think it was possible to walk or run a half-marathon if I trained for a year?

Cancer changes everything.

On top of all things health-wise, it was a challenging winter. We almost didn’t make that first appointment on March 1. Snow began falling on February 28 at the rate of one inch per hour. Our driveway was impassable. We don’t own a large tractor, so we usually blew the snow into the trees with walk-behind snow blowers.

Looking at the wind pushing the snow across the driveway, I panicked. My husband wanted me to cancel the appointment. I said, “No, I will walk to the main road if I have to, but I cannot give up an appointment that could save precious time in beginning treatment.”

He dutifully dressed for the cold and began creating a path for the blade on the ATV. Eventually, he had moved enough snow for a vehicle to exit. That was only the first step of that morning’s commute. We had no idea what we could find on the farm-to-market road to Highway 1806. Depending on the wind’s direction, storms can build three-foot finger drifts across the road, making it difficult to see where the road ends and the ditch begins. Sinking into the ditch at 7 a.m. would be bad.

Thank goodness, the road appeared to be fairly clear in the growing light of dawn. Northwesterly winds were continuing to blow the snow across the adjacent fields. Traffic moved slower than usual on the main roads and in town, but we made it to the Sanford Cancer Center by 8 a.m. It was the doctor who was a few minutes late, but I didn’t care. I was on the road to dealing with my diagnosis.

In addition to the MRI that afternoon (which showed no cancer in my brain), several appointments were scheduled for the next two weeks.

First — back to “Irrational Radiology” for another biopsy. This time my lymph node at the base of my neck.

Second — after that biopsy, there would be a port placed. That’s a story for next week.

Third — I will be doing chemoradiation followed by immunotherapy. Okay. Without question, I followed along as best I could with all this information.

Fourth — A referral to a radiologist and the Bismarck Cancer Center.

Things began to happen fast. I felt weightless in the atmosphere of the clinics, my thoughts focused on accepting the fact that I might not be here by the end of the year. These thoughts were only in my head because no one said a word about survival — except Google. And we all know better than to Google your way to good health.

My referral to a radiologist began by filling out the same forms, different building, different staff, different MyChart medical portal, same me. Check the boxes — no illnesses, no drugs, no nothing, except this new cancer.

Strangely enough, when I was told I would be seeing Dr. Reynolds, I asked if it was my Dr. Reynolds who had by chance re-entered the workforce.

No. This would be a different Dr. Reynolds. Hmmmm.

This Dr. Reynolds had piercing blue eyes and I still see him nearly every day on a television promo around the time we watch the news.

Bismarck Cancer Center was a couple blocks away from the infusion center. Infusion center? I looked up the word. It means introducing a new element or quality into something. In medical terms that quality was liquid and varied from patient to patient. That experience comes later. We didn’t talk about that aspect of treatment in detail. Yet.

Dr. Reynolds said radiation would be fairly painless, until the end of the six weeks when my esophagus would be “sunburned” and swallowing would become difficult.

“Bulk up,” he said, after looking me up and down in the chair across from his. Nobody has ever suggested that to me before. I was trying to maintain my weight for my first-ever trip to Cancun in November. I had three new swimsuits and several other goodies ready to be packed into a new suitcase.

I was hoping to make it to November and not be a different size — whether my weight goes up or down. You know what the images in my mind are at this moment.

Again, the new doctor and new nurses explained what was going to happen over the next few months. Most of the information fell on deaf ears. It was only later that someone suggested recording these visits with my phone and reviewing the instructions at home. I think I was done with radiation by the time that information soaked into my brain.

Somehow, the scheduling and treatments would be happening at the Bismarck Cancer Center in tandem with Dr. Rocket and the Sanford Cancer Center.

Every week beginning when? March 20 — that’s two weeks away.

“Treatment planning takes time,” Dr. Reynolds said. “And, there are a few more things we need to do. Are you claustrophobic?”

YES. Really claustrophobic. Remember the story about burying people with a bell back in the day?

Radiation didn’t involve being slid into a tube like the MRI, but it would take place on an open bed like a CT scanner. I can do that, I thought. That was NOT the gist of that question about claustrophobia.

The doctor ran his hand over his face ear to ear and said they would be building me a plastic mask. To hold my head still. Accuracy was an important improvement to current radiation treatment.

Okay, a mask like the ones we wore during Covid. I can handle that. I’m not that claustrophobic.

“You mean like with a 3-D printer?” I said. He seemed puzzled at my question. I found out why a wee bit later.

After a short wait, some young technicians appeared to escort me to a room I would become all too familiar with in the near future.

While they did whatever they did to prepare me for what came next, I stood by observing the large area with cupboards and an enclosed “office” with large windows. In that area were computers under very low light. They prepared the scanner, which didn’t appear to be very scary at all, and collected the supplies needed for the next steps.

Using a step stool and some helpful hands, I laid down on the scanner bed — a metal or hard plastic mattress covered with a clean sheet. We worked together to make it comfortable and made sure my body was positioned correctly.

And, yes, when offered, I would love a warm blanket. I’m always cold.

Then came building the mask.

The mask was not a mask at all like I envisioned.

I watched from my prone position as one of the two techs unwrapped a large piece of plastic with blue trim about an inch wide. This perforated white sheet reminded me of that new packing paper that folds like little accordions to protect things made of glass. I missed seeing the snaps around the outer edge.

This sheet was warmed somehow somewhere beyond my field of vision until it became pliable. With a person on either side of me, they laid the sheet like a shroud over my face. It felt great, like being in a spa for a kinky facial. While it was still warm, they used their fingers to shape the plastic around my facial features, opening a small area around my nose. The girls took their time and carefully smoothed the plastic from the top of my head, over my face, around my neck to my breast. Their touch was light and soothing and it was a pleasant experience.

Then they let it cool.

The next step was tattoos. These tiny marks would be used to position my torso so the radiation would accurately enter my body where it was most needed. This would require the use of the computers originating from behind the glass-enclosed area.

When all the instruments were adjusted, they were ready for the test scan, they brought it back. The mask. My plastic likeness was snapped down on the scanner bed pressing my head and neck in place with a rather loud sound. I panicked. I felt like I was choking.

I waved my arms and the mask was quickly removed. Twice. I couldn’t do it.

It had to be done and I knew it. But the thought terrified me.

“Would you like something to hold in your hands?”

“Yes, I think that would help.”

I could not have been the first person to freak out in this situation because they knew how to talk me through the next steps.

The girl to the right of the platform (it didn’t deserve to be called a bed) allowed me to hold her hand for a short time. It probably didn’t make her job any easier to work with only one hand.

She had to leave, so her hand was replaced with a rubber ring. However, I was not allowed to hold it across my body like I wanted with both hands because that would interfere with whatever tattoos they were planning. My arms had to be by my side.

“I can hold onto the bed,” I said white-knuckling the edges of the platform. That wasn’t a good idea.

“We don’t want to pinch your fingers.” So they added handles like joysticks on either side like grips you would use when taking off in your rocket ship as the G-force presses down on your body.

“I can do this. I’m ready.” I allowed them to snap the mask in place gripping the handles and slowing my breath so I wouldn’t cough. 

Somehow, I vaguely remember how I made it through the third time they snapped that mask into place. As unpleasant as the moment was, I concentrated on the praise music playing in the background. 

The thing about most songs is the length is approximately three minutes. They said my time under the mask would be about five minutes so I counted songs and envisioned Jesus right there in the room with me. It took what felt like an eternity as I counted the seconds of each tune until they came back and quickly released me from my prison.

I made it.

After the scan, which I am assuming required computer-generated positioning to match the areas in the PET scan that lit up bright pink in the middle of my torso. (Yes, I accidentally saw the scan at this appointment on Dr. Reynold’s computer.) As he turned the computer screen towards me, his exact words were, “You are really lit up.”


I was okay with glowing in the dark on the outside, but did not feel very comfortable about the fluorescent pink area glowing in the middle of my chest.

To assist with positioning the “beam,” directly at those pink areas, those two kind and patient technicians dropped some ink in three places across my torso and poked it in place with a needle. The first drop and poke didn’t hurt, but a large black and blue mark appeared around the area. The second drop was lost in my belly fat, but the third must have hit a nerve because that poke hurt.

Once home, when I looked for those tats, the marks were so small I could barely find them after scrubbing the Sharpie’s dots away in the shower.

“For that kinda money, I would have expected larger tattoos,” I said to no one within earshot.



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