Burn, witch, burn

I don’t know if it’s the Halloween season or the fact that I’m currently going through radiation treatment (burn, baby, burn, radiation inferno!), but I’ve been feeling a lot like a witch in one of those old Vincent Price movies lately. You know, the ones that feature a variety of tortures for women accused of witchcraft. Or maybe they’re just accused of being women. Or single. It’s hard to keep all that straight.

Anyway, the bottom line is, it’s sometimes difficult to tell the difference between breast cancer treatment and torture.

When I was diagnosed back in February, one of the first things I learned was that I was going to lose my breasts, i.e., in order to get rid of the cancer, they had to take away the most symbolically female parts of my body. Presto chango — no more boobs. If that doesn’t sound like something straight out of the Spanish Inquisition, I don’t know what does.

After that, there was more “good” news. The surgery showed that my tumors qualified me for additional treatment, i.e., chemo and radiation. For those unfamiliar with chemotherapy, it’s basically a concoction of poisons that are pumped into your body through a port.  In my case, the port was surgically placed just under my right clavicle (where it still resides to allow easy access to my blood), a walnut-shaped lump that reminds me at times of an alien eyeball.

A third eye, if you will. Very witchy.

One of the worst side effects of chemo (at least for breast cancer patients) is complete and total hair loss. In other words, you’re shorn of your womanly locks, your crowning glory. That fabulous blonde stuff you flick over your shoulder and fluff whenever an interesting man comes into view suddenly starts to come out by the handful. Just as in the good old days of stocks and imaginary spells that supposedly caused some farmer’s milk cow to dry up, you’re robbed of yet another symbol of your womanhood. (You’re also robbed of your strength, your appetite, your dignity and so many other things during chemo, but we’ll save that for another time).

Losing your hair is the worst, though, probably because for a woman, losing your hair means you’re being punished. You’re a witch, a Nazi sympathizer, a prisoner. As Wikipedia puts it, “prisoners commonly have their heads shaven, often ostensibly to prevent the spread of lice, but clearly also as a demeaning measure.”

Head shaving, it goes on, “can be a punishment prescribed in law, but also something done as ‘mob justice’ – a stark example of which was the thousands of European women who had their heads shaved in front of cheering crowds in the wake of World War II, as punishment for associating with occupying Nazis during the war.”

In other words, when you lose your hair as a woman — not when you shave it yourself during that bad punk rock phase — but when it’s taken away from you without your consent, it ain’t good.  

But wait — there’s more.

After that, the witch — excuse me, the breast cancer patient — is burned. Not at the stake, mind  you, but in the bowels of some type of radiation machine. In my case, a new tomography wonder that my professional and attentive rad techs refer to as Tina.  It’s all very clean and technologically impressive. The treatment I receive at their hands is friendly and, yes, even comforting. But the machine still burns you, causing your skin to redden and blister and peel and throb so much that it takes your breath away at times. Sometimes, it causes the skin to harden enough that reconstruction becomes impossible. Or requires additional torture … er, surgery … to achieve.

Again, maybe it’s just the Halloween season. Or the fact that I’m in the last few days of my treatment and I’ve reached critical mass. Who knows, maybe I have a gigantic plastic bug up my ass.

I know that I have a vivid imagination. I know that the people who are treating me are not trying to hurt me, but get rid of this horrific disease so I can live a long and happy life. I know that researchers are desperately trying to come up with better solutions — solutions that don’t require this kind of torture — each and every day. But truly, I can’t help but wonder what the frigging hold-up is. Or whether this tortuous treatment for breast cancer is somehow considered acceptable. Because, after all, we’re just women. And women have been taking this kind of shit for hundreds of years.

But this particular woman — who happens to be feeling particularly witchy (and yes, even bitchy) this particular night — would just like to say, one thing.

I’ve had it. Seriously. I’m done.

In fact, if I have to take any more of this crap, I may just break down and turn somebody into a frog.

11 Responses to “Burn, witch, burn”

  1. 1 Jack November 3, 2011 at 11:14 am

    Hmmm, I’ll stay on this side of the lake for the time being… 🙂

    [ My sympathies are with you but responding to your humor is about all I can do! ]

    • 2 singleshot1 November 3, 2011 at 11:18 am

      No worries, “Jack.” Sometimes, a gal just needs to rant. Seriously, I haven’t put a spell on anyone in years. ; )

  2. 3 Brandie November 3, 2011 at 12:22 pm

    Yes. This. So true. For me, I reached a point where I really began to wonder if cancer would have been as bad as treatment (which, yes, I know it would have, but I was feeling just fine thank you very much until they started “treating” me.

    I’m glad you are almost done and am praying you never have to do any of this again!

    • 4 singleshot1 November 3, 2011 at 12:29 pm

      I hear you, Brandie! A big part of the problem for me was that I felt as healthy as a horse until “treatment” began. It’s hard to wrap your brain around it all — “But Doctor, I don’t FEEL sick. Are you sure I have to have this horrible crap done to me?” — which is probably why I’m still venting about it here (and on Twitter).

      Thanks, as always, for the read and for your wonderful support.

  3. 5 Joel November 3, 2011 at 2:53 pm

    “…it’s sometimes difficult to tell the difference between breast cancer treatment and torture.”

    how true ! even in life ..there are many things we can’t tell the difference..

    but you have pressed on … even if it’s treatment or torture

  4. 6 cancerfree2b November 3, 2011 at 3:13 pm

    Awe, I am so sorry the pain you are going through. It is torture. My diagnosis came in March, so I was going through radiation in November and December, finished it just 2 days before Christmas of 2010. I actually did not complete radiation – at least not the last three treatments. I can’t remember now (maybe that is a good thing) how many treatments there were supposed to be, but, I was in such bad shape that I went to my radiation oncologist and i told him I didn’t think I could take another day of it, that I had to have a break or something.

    He looked me over and told me that he was comfortable with my stopping at that point. He said he thought I had been burned enough . . . “burned enough” . . . I will never forget his saying that. He was evening smiling. Now, please understand, he is an excellent doctor and he wasn’t being mean, it might sound mean in a written form. But, still, the idea that it was said . . . “burned enough” just did not feel right. And, your post reminds me of how I too felt tortured. The radiation machine, room (even though there was pumped in music of my choice, and even though the the radiation techs were skilled and polite and sympathetic) was a torture machine, a torture room.

    When my radiation oncologist looked me over that day and said he thought I had been “burned enough” I was mostly just relieved. At the time I was just so relieved to be done that I didn’t really think about what he said, how he said it . . . I guess he realized too that it was torture. I know that he wanted the best for me . . . it is just too bad that in this day and age wanting the best for a patient still . . . STILL . . . sometimes means getting “burned enough”.

    I feel for you, I really do. I don’t know about you, but, I found the radiation to be harder to endure than the chemo (which was no walk in the park either).

    I am thinking of you and wishing you all of the best. I hope you feel better soon.

    Thank you for sharing such a great post. I am sorry you are suffering so. Great post.

    Wishing you well,


  5. 7 AnneMarie November 3, 2011 at 5:27 pm

    I hear ya loud and clear. I didn’t get the burn baby burn portion of the program. What I do know is this: I have absolute proof of the lack of progress in 24 YEARS.

    My mom was dx’d with breast cancer in 1987. I was diagnosed in 2006. In 2007, as I was finishing treatment, my mom was diagnosed with a 2nd breast cancer in the other breast. I have the medical records from 1987. Our oncologist (doesn’t that sound shitty “our” oncologist) wanted to see what drugs were administered the first time around.

    Progress? I think not. A copy of her chemo paperwork is on my blog. WHAT IS going on with the research. You are so right and that seems to be where I intend to begin focusing my energies…… Enough IS enough already.

    I’m glad you are finishing up (finished?)…… Time for a party…… I’ll pop a bottle of champagne and do a virtual celebration with you!!!

    Feel good,


  6. 8 nancyspoint November 7, 2011 at 8:01 am

    Great post. I don’t think there is a whole lot of difference between breast cancer treatment and torture. Seriously. A great deal of it is pretty darn bad. I’m sorry for all you have been forced to endure. It does all get to be a bit much doesn’t it? If you are feeling a bit bitchy or witchy, in that you are not alone either. I hear you!

  7. 9 vmc November 10, 2011 at 12:12 pm

    I know how you feel–I finished my radiation on Oct. 4, and I’m doing fine now. I am so sorry it has been such a trial for you, but I do love your wonderful sense of dark humor. I will continue to read your blog because we are at a similar stage at alomst the same time. I am going to include you in my prayers tonight 🙂

  8. 10 Jules November 11, 2011 at 5:59 pm

    What I so appreciate about your work here is the furious outrage and the feminist analysis you express. “… whether this tortuous treatment for breast cancer is somehow considered acceptable. Because, after all, we’re just women. And women have been taking this kind of shit for hundreds of years.” This is exactly it. Exactly. Your fury is so cathartic, so soothing, to me – and to anyone – caught in this awful world. Really nice job.

    • 11 singleshot1 November 11, 2011 at 6:23 pm

      Hey Jules:

      Thanks so much for the note. And I’m glad that my Burn, Witch, Burn” blog post spoke to you. I was joking with somebody yesterday about how any minute I expect my docs to lead me out into the middle of a field and tell me they’re going to put a giant plank on top of me and then pile giant rocks on top of it. You know, to “squeeze the cancer out of me.” Seriously, it seems so ridiculous that so many people (men and women both) have to endure the torture of surgery, chemo, and rads (the same old cancer treatment that’s been going on for years and years). But what do we do? Just grin and wear pink bracelets? Quietly endure the crappy cards that are dealt us? I don’t know how to cure this fucking disease. But I know how to write. And bitch. And commiserate. So until something better comes along, I guess I’ll stick with that.

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What’s my story?

I'm a former freelance writer, now gainfully employed at Fred Hutch (views and f-bombs all my own).

I write about health and health care; cancer research and the cancer experience; dating, lifestyle and singles issues and lots of other stuff including humor and fiction and a few songs here and there.

Book info below.

Looking for my breast cancer blog? Go to doublewhammied

Where are my books?

How to Date in a Post-Dating World A dating manual for the modern, mangled single.

Single State of the Union
Single women speak out on life, love and the pursuit of happiness.

Fifty Shades of Brains
Sex. Zombies. Really annoying present tense narration.

Follow me on Twitter!

November 2011

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