Once I was finished with chemotherapy, I had 6 weeks of radiation therapy to look forward to. By this time it was early December, and radiation therapy was a 5-day-a-week affair, some fifteen miles from where I live. I cannot drive in the dark; laser therapy for diabetic retinopathy has left me essentially night-blind. Luckily the cancer center was willing to schedule my appointments for near noon—the only daylight available this far north in the winter.

The first step is called simulation. This is when the technicians work out the exact position you need to be in for the radiation beams to have a maximum impact on the area from which the cancer was removed and a minimum impact anywhere else. They also mark key points on the breast with tiny tattoos. Laser beams on those tattoos eventually line up the radiation beams.

Door of the radiation room. The white is the edge of the door--and it has a lead core, so you can guess how heavy it is!

The tattoos were tiny—so tiny they were generally circled or otherwise marked with felt pens so the technicians could find them.

Probably the worst part of the procedure was that the position they wanted me in was lying down with both arms over my head. I had a frozen shoulder at one time—it’s still stiff—and lying for 15 minutes with my arms over my head, my hands clutching a rubber ring, was agonizing. The technicians generally had to help me lower my arms after the session was over. I could not move them.

Aside from that, the sessions were simply boring. Nothing much was visible, and I had to keep perfectly still while the machine rotated around me. Because of the intensity of the X-rays, the whole room was shielded and the technicians had to be out of the room while I was actually being irradiated. In fact, I recall that at one point they were having problems with the electric mechanism that opened and closed the thickly shielded doors. It was all they could do to open and close them manually.

Cancer radiation machine. The patient lies on the gurney on the front left which is then pushed under the white head, and the head then rotates around the table.

The worst problem was not the therapy itself, but the weather. January 2009 started out cold. The first ten days of the month not only had minimum temperatures below –40 F, the maximums were often below -40 as well. At those temperatures, both cars and power plant cooling ponds leave contrails. In built-up areas such as Fairbanks, those contrails flow together to create ice fog. In particular, there is a military power plant just north of the main road into Fairbanks from North Pole, where I live, that has caused several fatal accidents because of the ice fog it produces.

There is another way to drive into town, by making a long detour to the north around the base, and that is what I did for the first week of January, when I had daily appointments. Even then, the fog in town was so dense that I had a hard time seeing streetlights or telling exactly where I was, let alone seeing cars more than a couple of car-lengths ahead of me.

In mid-January the weather turned around and we suddenly had four days with highs well above freezing. A touch of relief? NOT. Our roads almost always have ice and snow over the asphalt or gravel in winter, and a midwinter warming just makes everything appallingly slippery.

The only side effect I had from the radiation therapy itself was the equivalent of a mild sunburn on the treated breast. My oncologist gave me some cream to treat this, but it was more a slight reddening than painful. Again, I kept up daily exercise throughout the therapy. I felt a little increase in energy after the chemo and radiation were over, but was not aware of fatigue during the treatments.

Am I cured? Less than three years after diagnosis, it’s impossible to be sure. I’ve had a mammogram and visits with both doctors in the last couple of weeks, and everything looks fine, thanks in large part to the fact that my primary care physician actually caught the cancer a couple of months before my regular annual mammogram was due. The early detection plus the exercise can probably get the credit for the relatively minor side effects I suffered. The cancer also pushed me into going ahead and publishing Homecoming.

And while my hair only thinned rather than falling out entirely during chemotherapy, it did come back in curly for a while. The photo of me, which was taken to go on the back of the book, was taken the summer after my treatments ended. Alas, my hair is now as straight as ever.