ALONE IN A DIMLY LIT,
lead-lined room, lying on a metal table in
humiliatingly immodest gown, I listened to the buzz of a
linear accelerator as gamma rays passed through my midsection.
I was one of more than half a million new American cancer patients who relied on nuclear radiation in 1994 to prolong our lives.
The buzz lasted half a minute to a minute, leaving a vague tingling sensation. The tingling was so subtle that it might have been imaginary, except that other patients report it too. By design the radiation was to disrupt my cells, both healthy ones and potentially cancerous ones.
The theory is that the healthy ones will repair themselves while the cancerous ones -- if any even exist in my lymph nodes -- will die.
Surgery had already removed a seminoma -- a tumor of the testicle. Radiation was designed to kill any cancerous cells that had spread.
"Seminoma cancer cells are very fragile," explained Dr. Paul Herstein, the Group Health radiologist who directed my treatment. If I had had a carcinoma, a more common and malignant tumor, I might have received twice as much radiation.
Even so, after 15 treatments I had received the equivalent of about 27,000 chest X-rays.
After each treatment I could drive home without a problem, but because the radiation was aimed at my gut I spent much of each evening experiencing a bit of radiation sickness: nausea and sometimes vomiting.
The path of the beam was mapped by tiny dots tattooed on my belly, and later more visibly by a swath where my body hair temporarily fell out.
In deciding to submit to radiation, I played percentages. The treatment might have been unnecessary after surgery, and there was a remote chance it could even trigger new cancer. But statistically my chances of a complete cure were higher if I used radiation as well.
Nuclear medicine is the flip side of the atomic coin. Worldwide, far more people have probably been saved by anti-cancer radiation treatments, diagnostic radioactive tests and X-ray examinations than were killed at Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Chernobyl and by atmospheric fallout.
I was 42 when the disease was found last summer, meaning I was unlucky enough to have contracted cancer well below the median age of diagnosis, about 65. My testicular cancer is also fairly rare: Only one in 18,000 American males will get the disease this year. There is no known environmental cause.
On the other hand, it is one of the most treatable of all cancers.
Quick surgery gave me an 85 percent chance of a cure. Radiation boosted that chance to as near-certain as any cancer patient can get.
Microscopic examination of my intestine would probably reveal minor damage to healthy tissue from the radiation, but not enough to have any noticeable effect on my health.
The beam is generated by accelerated electrons that hit a tungsten target and become high-energy gamma rays. It is powerful enough to pass through the table, my back and body. A lead shield kept the beam from continuing into the gift shop on the floor overhead.
Herstein has not kept score, but one of his medical-school professors told his students he had prolonged the lives of 300 people with radiation treatments.
At this writing, I appear to be another success story.
Certainly, it gives one a different perspective. I got more than a million times as much radiation at Group Health Hospital as I did visiting power plants, plutonium vaults and bomb craters researching these stories.
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