Radiation Roulette

Another day, another morning spent in a waiting room flipping through an old issue of People. I assure myself this visit will be a breeze—no clueless surgeon telling me I may already be Stage 4, no needles jabbing into a “suspiciously swollen” lymph node, no jaunty pink ribbons of sisterhood. I’m here for a simple pre-surgical chest x-ray. But nothing is as simple as it seems these days. And, as I hear the technician’s monotone instructions–take a deep breath, hold it, let it go–I can’t help but wonder if this is where it all began.

I was 13 years old when our family doctor ran his finger down my spine and announced to my mother that I had scoliosis. I knew the word all too well. Like my peers, I gobbled up every book by Judy Blume, including Deenie the ode to the adolescent angst of scoliosis. The tears began to roll the minute I hit the parking lot.

How many x rays are too many? No one knows, but the orthopedists who mapped my wayward spine seemed to think nothing of ordering them in abundance. Strangely enough, even then, I feared the radiation might damage my ovaries and breasts. How on earth, at age 13, I suspected that radiation was bad news for my budding reproductive system, I’ll never know. (Blume? Was it you?) On the day my anxiety boiled over I mustered the courage to ask the x-ray technician for something to hold in front of my ovaries. I can still picture the quizzical tilt of her head, the you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me expression on her face. Without looking at me, she handed over a small plate of some kind. I took my best 13-year-old guess and held it beneath my navel. Deep breath. Hold it. Let it go.

Of course, one can’t re-examine every choice. (Maybe I should have held the plate in front of my breasts?) But that doesn’t keep my brain from wandering off to pan the stream of my past for carcinogens. What’s maddening about breast cancer is that I’ll never know what tipped me over the edge. The place I go looking for answers isn’t rational, but I like to visit it anyway. I peruse the statistics, run my fingertips over the risk factors. I find bizarre comfort in the unavoidable ones, such as early menses, but my gut lurches when I seize upon something questionable, something avoidable, like one too many x rays.

As someone who writes about women’s health for a living, I knew my history of radiation exposure put me at a higher risk of breast cancer but I didn’t know by how much. Was I naïve to think I could mitigate that risk by eating a vegetarian diet, staying fit, buying organic? I told myself a few x-rays wouldn’t raise my risk substantially. After all, it was just a little scoliosis; it wasn’t like I was in Hiroshima when the bomb dropped.

Then, on a flight to DC two weeks ago, I opened Dr. Susan Love’s Breast Book. While browsing the chapter on breast cancer risk factors, my eyes snagged on two sentences: “…there are other studies confirming the existence of radiation-induced breast cancer. One showed an increase in the disease among women with scoliosis who had a lot of x rays to monitor their backs during puberty…these studies show that the danger is from exposure to moderate doses of radiation.” Shit.

I’ve spent the past twenty-five years trying to make peace with what happened to my back. Trying to understand how an otherwise healthy young girl with a mild curve ended up in an operating room where surgeons carved a 13-inch incision, deflated a lung, took out a rib, removed a couple vertebrae, and rebuilt her lumbar spine out of metal rods and screws. One week in the ICU. Two weeks in the hospital. Three months flat in bed in a full body brace. Six months in a half-brace. Twenty-five years of thinking—was it worth it? Maybe I finally have my answer.

And that’s how I found myself at 9:15 this morning face to face with yet another x-ray machine. Breasts innocently awaiting another blast of radiation.

This time I didn’t bother to ask about protection; obviously, it’s beside the point.

By this time next week, they will be gone.

Deep breath. Hold it. Let it go.




9 Responses

  1. Amy says:

    This is a moving essay, Catherine. Thank you for sharing this story.

    Although not as serious as scoliosis (what do they do for that now? DO teens still have to wear the back brace? I lived in fear of that.) and breast cancer, I had my right leg cut up as a child to stop a spastic muscle. I am only 43 and I can already see how the severed tendon (at age 7) in my leg will hamper me from being able to walk and move very well in the coming years.

    I am thinking of you.

    • pinkisnotmycolor says:

      Amy, Thanks for the sweet note and for reading my blog : ) My understanding is that (generally speaking) orthopedists no longer see bracing or surgery as an appropriate way to treat scoliosis, except in the most serious of cases. I’m so sorry to hear about your leg. I don’t think most people realize just how much of medicine is trial and error. I understand the need to figure out what works and what doesn’t, but it sucks for those of us who get caught in the middle!

  2. Andrew says:


    So. I admit it. I blog bash perhaps more than you. And, I must admit, that I dread dread dread it when someone asks me to keep up with their blog–and the main reason? I teach writing and edit for a living. I can’t read any more than I must. And yet, I read your blog without skimming, without skipping, without sinking. Sure, part of it is because I care about you and I am thinking about you and I want you to be cancer-free and espresso-machine-connundrummed. But part of it is because you write so well–with awareness of pacing, line length, image, and detail. Lovely.

    And, to take your mind off you, might you be willing to think about me? I might try to call in a day or two–and only if you’re up to it–ask some advice about magazine article writing–I am responsible for delivering an introductory lesson in it soon.

    Thinking of you,


    • pinkisnotmycolor says:

      Andrew, Thank you so much for the kind words about my writing. I’ll email you about that magazine chat.

  3. marissa says:

    ouch, i mean: ouch!

    and infuriating, just plain infuriating

  4. Barb Freda says:

    I’m a mom to a son who had scoliosis badly enough to have surgery only three and a half years ago. So yes, they still do surgery. And a brace. And because such a tiny tiny percent of scoliosis cases are in males, I doubt a study’s been done

    I realize he’s had his fair share of radiation, too. And I did ask if he couldn’t just live with the curve–because I’d avoid the surgery and the radiation if it’s all the same…but the answer was no.

    We all just do the best we can.

  5. Catherine,

    This is beautiful writing. I’m sorry you’re having to deal with cancer, though. Wish that wasn’t why I am discovering your talent now.

    More hugs,

  6. Jenny Cromie says:


    I’m so sorry that you’re having to go through this. I am hoping that you continue to write throughout your experience, though. If you’re like me, writing has helped get me through so many things in my life. And it has helped me make peace with a lot of things in my life that I didn’t want to make peace with. So I hope you find the same solace in writing that I’ve found throughout your experience. And you are a beautiful writer.


  7. Mary says:


    We haven’t met yet, f-t-f. Likely you know I was diagnosed with breast cancer a year and half ago and chose a bilateral mastectomy. I had to laugh with recognition when I read what you wrote about not wanting to be lop-sided. That was a big deal for me. It’s a good idea to have an apron system to deal with the post-surgical drains – I got a bartender’s apron, with pockets in the front, to slip the drains into once I was up and about. There’s a pic on my blog (http://brys.wordpress.com/2007/07/12/the-gift/). It transformed the quality of my life after surgery, which in the case of this surgery, is really no biggy. This is quite an easy surgery, as far as post- stuff, once you manage the drain situation. I was baking a cake for my g/f 2 days after, with those pesky drains tucked out of harms way. And then, sleeping with those drains – that took some getting used to, albeit that they were only in for abt 9 days. But no one had talked about that before-hand. Hence my mention of this today. In case you are pacing tomorrow, you can find yourself a drains apron. It’s something to do. And how unlikely! 🙂

    I am sending you the very best of my thoughts and strength. I wish you both well in this time, which can be a tad tumultuous. It’s tough. It has all kinds of unexpected ups and downs.

    And thanks for your excellent writing. I will enjoy coming to visit your blog.

    Take care,