HEART-SPARING BREATH HOLD | Jayne Robinson reflects after a life-altering year of treatment for breast cancer.
by Jayne Robinson
The radiotherapist speaks in velvet tones. Her voice is quietly soothing, but comes at me loudly, filling the space all around my head. I cannot work out where the speaker is – there must be several.
I breathe in. It’s a deep, yoga breath, through the nose.
‘And breathe out.’
I push the breath out through my mouth. Air from my lungs flows back into the room.
The voice comes back again. It’s slow, calm and careful. ‘Breathe in… and now breathe out’
I breathe again. Consciously, deeply. I’m breathing with purpose. Holding my breath like this shifts my heart away from the radiation beams, so it’s crucial to get it right.
I’m lying on a bed with my arms raised above my head in very precisely positioned stirrups. The radiotherapy room is dim and sterile, save for a large light panel on the ceiling, made to look like a window into the outside world. The fake sky above me is a deep cerulean blue, dotted with white cirrus clouds. Moving across my body and now obscuring the view of the fake sky above, a mirrored panel on the radiotherapy machine reflects my bare, dismembered torso back at me. From the collarbone to my navel. The torso is purely physical, medical. I hardly recognise it.
‘And now breathe in, and hold your breath’
I watch the torso take a last, deep breath. It moves within the mirror, swelling at the top, breasts rising as the waist pulls in below the ribcage. The breasts are different shapes. The left one is more firm and rounded, but nippleless, unnatural. A thick, mauve scar cuts horizontally across it.
I hold my breath tightly. As the white panels of the radiotherapy machine rotate around my turgid body like futuristic windmill sails, my brain begins to notice the lack of oxygen and I feel lightheaded. I close my eyes. Open them. I can see glimpses of the blue sky above me as the machine quietly whirs around my body, carefully firing beams of radiation at my chest. I want to escape into that sky, but I am currently grounded by this beautiful machine. By the cancer which grew in my left breast last year and tried, tried, to invade my body.
‘Five, four, three, two, one… okay, you can breathe again’
I release my breath with a shudder and then take another gulp of air. In the reflection, the torso relaxes back into its previous, softer, more spacious form. The clouds on the ceiling do not move. They are fixed here, held in their light box as I am held in this bed. For now, we are bound together by circumstance.
“Sometimes, life throws you a situation and blocks the escape routes. There’s no easy way out – but there is usually a lifeline.”
Last year, when we first found out, I wanted to escape it all. I wanted to turn around and run from the news. Hide under a rock and wait very quietly while the monster passed overhead. But there was no fleeing this one. I was imprisoned by the cruel, illogical truth of it all. Sometimes, life throws you a situation and blocks the escape routes. There’s no easy way out – but there is usually a lifeline. And when the darkness that you need to escape from is inside your own body, we have no choice but to take the hard way. In my case it was half a year of life-altering treatment. Surgery. Five gloomy months of chemotherapy. A month of radiotherapy.
But now, my treatment is over. The cage which fell over my life eight months ago has been lifted, and I can flee, cautiously, back into the wild. Summer is approaching and I’ll be seeing the real skies soon enough.
‘And we’re all done,’ says the voice. ‘You can relax your arms.’
I do as she says. Cover myself back up. Hop off the bed, thank the radiologist, leave the room. I am all done, I think. I am one of the fortunate. Cancer took my breast, my hair, my year. But if all goes well it won’t take my future. I feel like a fugitive who’s finally broken through the ground at the end of their escape tunnel. The freedom is intoxicating, but I’ll always be looking over my shoulder.
Outside the hospital it’s cold, but the sky is blue, dotted in perfect white clouds which move and swirl above me with life and promise.
Ahead of me, time stretches into horizons that my eyes can’t yet see.
I breathe in,
hold my breath.
My heart still beats.
Jayne Robinson | @jaynelrobinson
Jayne is a writer, editor and toddler owner from Manchester, currently based in Amsterdam. She is a section editor of @Iamsterdam and was previously at the BBC.