I start in June, when the summer sun is gentle. The irises blooming amethyst, the fragrant fuchsia peonies bending low to the ground, the flowers too heavy and exuberant for the thin stems, an endless parade of ants marching to the petals. I never really noticed before how short-lived these perennial blossoms are. Each flower gets about a week to shine, then it withers and vanishes.
I lie on the table, turn my head to the right, stretch my arms above my head, lie like a still-warm corpse as the techs position me: they pull the sheet I lie on, a little tug on the right, a slight roll on the left. As the arms of this machine rotate slowly around me and then stop, like a radioactive Ferris wheel, I stare at the panels on the ceiling with photos of a perfect blue sky and white cottony clouds and tree branches bursting into life with green leaves and cerise crabapple blossoms, an eternal spring day. I hold my breath when they tell me to, I release my breath when they tell me to, I think about what I want for lunch. When I’m done, I slowly lower my stiff arms.
I am finishing in July, when the summer sun is merciless. The grass will be brown before August at this rate. The roses on the bush in our front yard are long gone. No more lilacs sweetening the air, no more irises, no more peonies. It’s over 90 degrees now, with no end in sight to this heat wave. The second I step outside, I am sweaty, salty, sticky, shielding my eyes from the sun. My arm gets pink just driving my car, my face flushes walking the dogs. I am an ant under a magnifying glass wielded by some sadistic kid in that sun.
I notice my skin getting redder and I have about two weeks of treatments to go. The techs are playing reggae music as I lie down. It reminds me of my vacation in Jamaica about 15 years ago. I was careful with the sunscreen then but missed a spot under my arm and had an excruciating sunburn. I scheduled an appointment for a cooling wrap in the resort spa and was covered in healing aloe in the dimly lit room, new age-y music playing softly overhead. I closed my eyes then, and I close my eyes now.
My friend asks me if the radiation burns are like sunburn. “Yes,” I answer, “If you keep on going outside in the sun after you burn and never put on sunscreen.” I learn that there is a burn beyond red, when your skin turns an angry purple. These are the most painful spots, under my arm and under my left breast (or what’s left of it).
I haven’t been walking the dogs as much in July. Too many snapping, whistling firecrackers at all hours of the day. The skin under my left arm is too fragile for greyhounds who want to launch themselves at 30 mph at brown-grey rabbits sitting stone still on the grass. But mostly it’s just too hot, too humid, too much sun, black asphalt like a sizzling cast-iron pan on tender paw pads.
I have two different kinds of moisturizer, a hydrocortisone ointment, cooling aloe gel patches, Aspercreme, Aquaphor, a powder that I mix with distilled water and soak on my skin two to three times a day. It’s hard to sleep now, hard to stretch my left arm. Any movement is an agonizing prolonged sting. Lying still I feel a constant dull ache. I lurch around, my left arm drawn in and unmoving, like a wounded Tyrannosaurus. Only three treatments left, and then I can start to heal. I have no plans, other than lying on the couch in the air conditioning, under the noisy ceiling fan watching TV and occasionally looking out through the sliding glass door in the kitchen at the brightly lit summer, waiting for its fever to break.
Karen Steiger is a poet, fiction writer, and future breast cancer survivor living in Schaumburg, Illinois, with her beloved husband, Matt, and two retired racing greyhounds, Giza and Horus. She is the founder of her poetry blog, The Midlife Crisis Poet (themidlifecrisispoet.com), and her work has been published in The Wells Street Journal, Arsenika, The Pangolin Review, Black Bough Poetry, Pendemic, Ang(st), Perhappened, Kaleidotrope, and Twist in Time.