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At the Top of My Lungs: Radiation Burnout

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Photo credit: Harlan Seymour

"Just like a tattoo, I'll always have you." -- Jordin Sparks, American Idol winner, season six

In preparation for radiation, I was given three small tattoos. This was not nearly as much fun as the last time I got a tattoo, a tequila-soaked night in Hong Kong many years ago.

After a glittering evening at a Yacht Club ball, a group of my high-octane, high-volume girlfriends and I found ourselves at Ricky & Pinky's, a squalid but popular tattoo joint in Wan Chai. The other patrons were triads (Chinese mafia), one of whom sat stoically while an ornate dragon tattoo was punctured onto his ankle. The closer to the bone, the more painful the tattoo. Mine was not so painful, as I chose a location with ample padding. I lay on my belly with my skirt hiked up, a Tsingtao beer in one hand and a mirror in the other so I could look over my shoulder and watch a small rose bloom in a place where it would rarely see the sun.

My new cancer tattoos are just little dots, administered in a much more pedestrian and sterile environment at the Dorothy E. Schneider Cancer Center at Mills-Peninsula hospital. I was given one small dot tattoo on the center of my chest and one under each arm, so that the radiation could be lined up in exactly the same place each weekday for the next two months.

My radiologists were John, a tall thin Caucasian guy, and Wayne, a shorter Asian guy. John Wayne. My heroes. Every day they saddled up to unleash their big guns on the assailant in me.

A third radiologist, Tony, was middle-aged, bespectacled, soft-spoken and specific. A scientist straight from central casting. But to me he was Tony the Tiger, and he was Grrrrreat to Rrrrradiate!

The excellent news was that we could feel the tumor on my neck breaking up after just a few weeks, and we had every hope that the same thing was happening to the primary tumor in my lung. But after seven straight weeks the radiation was taking its toll. The burns on my throat and collar bone blistered and peeled, and I had exit burns on the back of my neck. My veins were swollen, bruised and sore from the inflammation-causing radiation and the chemo infusions.

Bald, burned and bruised, I felt like I'd just crawled out of a Mad Max movie.

The doctor gave me a prescription for burn cream that provided immediate relief. It was supposed to last a month but I went through the first tube in four days. I was at the pharmacy first thing the next morning, like an addict jonesing for a hit, willing to pay any price for just a little taste. I dressed for the part of cancer patient, purposely leaving my head uncovered and the burns exposed so it would be clear how badly I needed this fix. The pharmacist gave me a tube right away. I cracked it open in the parking lot and sat quietly in my car for a few minutes as the ointment took the edge off and started to soothe. I remember a scene like this from The Wire, but they were shooting smack, not applying skin cream.

Burns heal and hair grows back, but my three little dots will always be with me, a daily reminder that I carry cancer inside me and its mark is indelible.

This column originally appeared on For more by Jennifer Glass, click here. "Like" Jennifer's Facebook page here. See her Fear.Less. video here.

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