How My Body Became a Stranger During Cancer Treatment


“I’m going to tattoo you now, and this will be permanent.”

No, the speaker wasn’t a tattoo artist with a penchant for stating the obvious; she was a radiation oncology tech. And what she was telling me was completely routine and something I had been prepared for  —  supposedly.

Yet everything about the situation surprised me. I was lying “as still as possible” on a table, naked from the waist up. The one female tech had taped my breasts “down” (away from the radiation field) using wide swaths of surgical tape anchored to the table and to my jeans. (The nicety of having a woman do this would be quickly dispensed with — there were schedules to keep and lunch breaks to take.) I couldn’t see because a dripping, rapidly cooling piece of plaster had been draped over my head and the top of my neck. When it dried, the mask would keep me still during radiation sessions. Above me, a circular machine whirred, it’s flying-saucer-like segments ready to calibrate the exact angles required for treatment.

To say that the whole experience was about half a step removed from the porn parody of itself is generous. It could have been filmed as-is and found a niche audience.

Permanent? I didn’t want a tattoo. I’d never wanted a tattoo. Semi-permanent makeup that would fade to nothing in a couple years, sure. Tattoos, no. I have a visceral distaste for them that borders on the religious. Fine for others, unacceptable for me. My body, my choice, right?

One problem with cancer treatment is that at every stage, the patient is bombarded with information, and some of it just doesn’t stick. The day I got the mask made and the marks tattooed, I had been informed, prodded and fucking sung at to a degree that even Day One of chemotherapy did not come close to matching. It wasn’t much surprise that I was done speaking up. I didn’t say, “Hey, so semi-permanent makeup is a thing, is there any way you guys could use that instead?” And a week later, when treatment started, I wouldn’t say, “Any chance I maybe don’t have to lie half-naked on a table while two men tape my breasts down? Can a woman do it, like the first time?”

woman with cancer in hospital bed

If I’d been paying closer attention to the process, I might have realized that my loss of physical autonomy began well before the diagnosis. It started with small, reasonable things like a fine needle aspiration of a lymph node. Then it was surgery to remove the lymph node. Then, before I’d really had time to process it, I was at Day One of chemo, the nurses shaking their heads over my stinging veins and injecting me with anti-emetics, steroids, and of course, the poisonous, cancer-blasting chemo drugs themselves. This was followed by a shot in the ass of a menopause-inducing drug that might or might not have preserved my fertility but definitely resulted in months of near-constant hot flashes.

During chemo, I became oddly divorced from my body, which was strange because together we were going through such an intense experience. But I felt like it belonged to the doctors more than to me. The doctors injected me with poison that made my hair fall out and made me physically ill. They cut out parts of me. They induced menopause.

I, by contrast, had spent 29 years treating my body with compassion. I ate healthily and well, I ran sprints, I lifted heavy weights, I took medicine to control migraine and ulcerative colitis, and I attended my annual colonoscopy appointments like clockwork. I also managed to escape the food and body issues that so many women struggle with  —  I’ve considered my body pretty much perfect since adolescence and have never wanted to starve, cut or otherwise punish it.

It was hard letting the doctors attack a body I cared about. Since I never experienced any symptoms of the cancer itself, I had to trust scans and biopsies and professionals that everything they were doing to my body was necessary to save it from a fatal disease. I didn’t feel that. The only thing I felt was the steady destruction, the accrual of new treatment side effects, the gathering fatigue, the sense that I wasn’t in control.

By the time I was done with chemo and ready to start radiation, I no longer had the sense that I should be in control of my body. Losing that sense had been key to making peace with the treatment.

The day of the radiation simulation began with nurses trying to find a vein to inject contrast into. Chemo had mostly destroyed my veins, and they stuck me over and over, in different parts of my body, muttering darkly to each other: “She’s got no blood,” while I tried to keep from screaming. Eventually, one of them looked at my face and said, “She’s about to lose it; this is too much pain.” Thanks to her evaluation of my condition  —  not anything actually said  —  they picked a smaller vein in my hand and made it work.

Next, the door opened and a man walked in carrying a guitar. He informed me that he was my “music therapist” and started playing classical guitar.

As it happens, my ex-partner (who was with me when I was hospitalized for ulcerative colitis) was also a classical guitarist. I did not want to hear classical guitar now, when I was single and going through cancer treatment. But I had long since stopped speaking up about what was happening to or around me, so I sat on a chair and cried while he played music and stared at me, mostly unblinking and occasionally giving what he must have thought of as a comforting nod.

From there I was led into the simulation room, asked to strip, and had my boobs taped down (and, by extension, myself taped to the table).

“Are you cold?” the techs asked.


“Have to keep it cold in here. Cause of the machines. Sorry we can’t cover you up.”

And then,

“What kind of music do you like?”


“That’s the one kind we don’t have! That’s OK, the music therapist made you a classical playlist.”

They put it on (of course I didn’t say anything), and after that I couldn’t say anything anyways because they placed the dripping plaster mask over my head and I had to keep still.

It was under these circumstances that the tech said, “I’m going to tattoo you now, and this will be permanent.”

And she did.

Just like that, laid out on a table with a mask over my face and a needle scratching the first of four marks into my skin, I realized what had happened over the past months. I’d lost all sense of ownership of my body. What music it listened to, what temperature it endured, what covering (or lack thereof) it wore, what drugs were poured into it, and what ink marked it. The healthy, loving relationship I’d spent decades building was gone. It was the doctors’ body now; I had relinquished it without ever realizing what was happening.

I am trying, in the wake of cancer treatment, to reconnect with my body. In a lot of ways, this takes the form of apologizing to it.

I’m sorry the chemo made you sick.

Sorry your hair fell out.

Sorry you’re not strong like you were.

I examine the tattoo marks. They’re very small, like black moles, but they are smooth, ink on skin. Four little dots. Not a high price to pay — to live.

But we never felt like we were dying, my body and I.

I touch each mark in turn, staring at my reflection in the mirror.

Sorry for these, too.

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