Wednesday, 17 December 2014

86. The day I got a tattoo

Yes, I thought that might get your attention, but I'm afraid the title of this blog post is as exciting as it gets.

I know that some women do get spectacular tattoos after having a mastectomy. I've seen them on the internet. Like these ones, for example.

But whilst getting such extravagant tattoos is clearly right for some women, it isn't for me - in the same way as getting your breast reconstructed is right for many women, but not for me. I'm more of an au naturel kind of person.

My tattoos (four of them, to be precise) are tiny black pin pricks to indicate where the radiotherapy beams should go.

That's what this week's appointment at the cancer hospital was for. I needed to be poked, measured, marked, scanned (to be sure that the marks were in the right place) and finally, tattoo'd. When I have my daily radiotherapy in January, the beams have to enter me in exactly the same place each time.

So I now have a permanent ballpoint mark in what used to be my cleavage, one on either side of my chest, and one below my collarbone. You can barely see them. They are rather lost among the many other spots and dots that seem to accumulate with, shall we say, seniority. But no matter: I can now rightfully claim that I've been pierced with inky needles by a professional tattooist.

It goes without saying that Owl has undergone the same procedures. The radiographers said that he was the first ever owl they have ever scanned and tattood. Here is the evidence.

Owl in the CT scanner 

Getting ready with the black tattoo ink

Dot marks the spot

This Radiotherapy Planning Appointment was, I am glad to say, a positive experience.

Unlike the previous time at this hospital, when I was subtly robbed of my personhood, I was treated in such a personable way that all was forgiven and forgotten. It helped that I was determined not to be lost - and if I was, I was going to ask for clear directions and instructions. So I approached the first receptionist and told her that I probably needed Radiotherapy Downstairs, yes, I know how to get there, thank you. I approached the receptionist at Radiotherapy Downstairs and told her why I was there; she gave me almost-clear instructions about how to get to Reception Desk Number 3. I did get lost but asked a passing porter, who was very helpful.

Once there, I was called in almost immediately by a very friendly radiographer. "Mrs Tuffrey?" Not an Eye-reen in sight, so I knew it was definitely me. When he did ask, after the necessary question-and-answer session, whether it is OK to call me Eye-reen, I thought I'd better point out that actually, it's ee-RAY-na

After that, everyone called me by my proper name. A-ma-zing. Such a small thing, making such a difference. Friendly Radiographer sent me back into the waiting room with clear explanations: "You have to wait for your CT scan, where they will check and mark the right place for the radiotherapy beams; there is one person ahead of you; it will take another 20 minutes or so; this is where you can find the free coffee."

Well, that had me settled comfortably. And when it was my turn, the other radiographers not only knew my name: they also knew all about Owl. Friendly Radiographer had told them everything. Full marks to the lot of them.

They are rather a cheerful lot, these radiographers.

There were two of them in the scanning room. They were like a chirpy double act, explaining to me what was involved (lying bare-chested on the trolley with my arms up in stirrups, mimicking the radiotherapy position), then standing either side of me, poking me with their hands, feeling for ribs and goodness-knows-what, calling out numbers, trying to mark the right spots.

About here, do you think?
Up a bit, perhaps.
It's nine centimeters.
I'd like it to be a bit more.
Ten centimeters, yes, perfect.
I'm happy with that.

They sounded oh-so-positive and confidence-inspiring. It was a bit like being at a jolly art session in a kindergarten, with me as the canvas. Out came the felt tips to mark large crosses on my chest. Out came some sticky dots to put in the centre of the crosses, special ones that show up on the scan. Out came the scissors and a length of wire, to stick across my scars with a bit of tape.

The wire intrigued me, so I quizzed them about it. This is what they do: making an educated guess when marking where the spots should go; then checking on the scan (which shows up my ribs and suchlike) whether they are bang in the right place. But they can’t see the mastectomy scar on the scan, and as any leftover cancer cells are most likely to have congregated near the scar, they need the metal wire to show them where that is.

So now we know.

Cheerful Radiographer Duo disappeared into the glassed-off control room, pressed the buttons to send me in and out of the scanner, came rushing out once to adjust one of the sticky dots ever-so-slightly (“we are perfectionists here”), and that was that. Ready for the tattoos. It's all very technical and precise.

The actual radiotherapy sessions will be with a different team.

"But don't worry," said one half of the Duo, "you'll have to go every day so they really get to know you."

Have they read my blog? Because she added one more thing, without any clues from me.

"I'm sure they will even learn how to pronounce your name."

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