Barium is a metal. A dense, insoluble, silvery metal. I looked it up on Wikipeadia. This exotic element, number 56 on the periodic table for the geeks among you, has surprisingly few useful applications. One is in the manufacture of fireworks – it burns a vivid green colour – the other is medical. Barium Sulphate, mixed into a thick, mud-like paste renders the gastrointestinal tract opaque to x-rays. Very useful for looking inside people’s er, insides.
And quite unexpectedly, it tastes of banana.
So here I am, striped to the waist and flat on my back, sipping my delicious Barium Sulphate and banana smoothie through a paper straw. It’s cold, thick and chalky, and feels unnaturally heavy in my mouth.
It’s been decided that the best way to stop my tumor bleeding is to zap it with radiation. A tendency toward bleeding is not good when receiving chemotherapy. Amongst the fun stuff that chemo drugs can do, one is to destroy or diminish the platelets on your blood. Platelets are what case your blood to clot. No platelets, no clotting. No clotting – well you get the picture.
I’m down in the basement of the oncology building for “simulation.” A kind of dummy-run, where the radiologists put me through the enormous white machine immediately behind my head, thus rendering everything but my bones, my barium and banana lined gullet, and my belt-buckle transparent. The idea is to establish the exact co-ordinates of my tumor in 3D space so that the x-ray radiation can be targeted accurately. High-energy particles are destructive by design, and not the sort of thing you want bouncing around inside you randomly like a ricocheting bullet.
The radiologist and his assistants spend some time positioning me correctly on the couch. They nudge, push and pull me in tiny increments until I am perfectly aligned with the machine. I peer down and can see a vivid green laser line bisecting my body vertically, from my groin to the top of me head. I can’t help thinking of the scene in Goldfinger, where the eponymous baddie tries to cut Bond in half with a laser beam. Bond – “Do you expect me to talk?” Goldfinger – “No Mr. Bond. I expect you to DIE!” By rocking my head slightly I can see the luminous line dance over the tip of my nose. A second laser describes a line transversely across my pale chest. At the point where the two intersect at the top of my abdomen, the nurse carefully inscribes a cross-hairs in fine red marker. She makes a second mark at the top of my chest, just below where my collar-bones meet.
Just when I thought things couldn’t get any weirder, the nurse says “Right Mr. Redding. I’m just going to tattoo you now.” Blimey, I thought. It’s amazing what you can get on the National Health Service these days. We briefly discuss the possibility of a pneumatic blonde in a skin-tight rubber space-suit wrestling a dragon, but we finally settle on two minute black dots administered with indelible dye and a small needle. The purpose of the tattoos is to serve as reference marks to align me in exactly the same position for each radiation treatment session. She feels that my design, while having artistic merit, might only confuse the operator in the control room. Fair call. I defer to her obvious experience in such matters.
After all this excitement, the scan itself is a bit of an anticlimax. Everybody leaves the room, and a disembodied voice tells me to lie perfectly still. The machine makes a quiet whirring sound, the lights dim slightly and my couch passes smoothly through the doughnut shaped aperture in the mighty device, pauses for a few moments, and then returns me to the room.
I’m helped down off the machine and given a yellow appointment card by the radiologist. I’m to have five “fractions” of radiation over five consecutive days. My first session is booked for a couple of days away. I proudly show of my new tattoos to Jo and slip my t-shirt on.