Years ago when I was in the oncology center waiting room for an appointment following my bout of breast cancer, two women made me cry. One was in her 70s, and the other was her middle-aged daughter, both clinging to each other and having a hard time answering questions because of their sobbing while they checked in to hear test results. I was soon called back to see my oncologist, and so were they, but I saw them again on my way out, both of them laughing and crying at once, still clinging to each other. A nurse who escorted them out hugged them and said, “I’m so happy for you.” They arrived in terror and left in joy.
I know those feelings pretty well. Since those dreaded “you-have-cancer” words first entered my orbit in 2002, I’ve been on the scan bus, making more stops than I would have expected because I was also diagnosed with BRCA 1, one of the breast cancer mutations. Add to this that my father and uncle died young from pancreatic cancer, and MRIs entered the mix. Then there was the ocular melanoma last summer, and now, post-treatment for that, I’m a regular in our hospital’s radiology department.
Last Friday, I had my second seasonal (every three months for many years) scan to make sure what was in my eye didn’t travel. Because this type of cancer, when it has legs (and I pray it doesn’t), usually shows up in the liver and sometimes in the lungs, I had an abdominal and chest CT scan (used to be called a CAT scan, although there’s little purring, involved), and some blood work. I was scared beforehand but not as scared as the first one last fall, and far less scared than the parade of of scans last spring. In the week before the scan, I had a few seconds here and there of full-body terror that makes me feel like I’m both thoroughly embodied in terror and also on the outside looking in. But I’ve learned fear storms are just another kind of weather that moves through: keep breathing, drink some water, tell yourself it’s just a strong emotion that will ebb, and eventually, the sky clears.
Getting scans to see what’s happening under the hood is something many of us endure. I know so many people living with and recovering from many health challenges, all of which require showing up on time, sometimes drinking strange fluids or having dye injected into us, and then being ferried in and out of large, sometimes (in the case of MRIs) outrageously loudly-clanging machines. There’s also other tests of trepidation many of us go through that show whether we’re in the money or up shit’s creek. My scans and health history aren’t more challenging than what many others go through, and I have a lot of “there but for the grace go I” moments when I hear of friends who are facing degenerative diseases, chronic pain, and terminal diagnoses (although life is such a diagnosis). Then again, comparison of our learning edges and life challenges is a futile activity.
I’ve learned and am continually learning to stay calmer, working through my phobia of being restricted in the grips of a machine. Last summer, my wonderful oncologist Sherri Soule gave me a prescription for a lot of Lorazepam, a low dose anti-anxiety drug. I wondered why she prescribed so many, but now that I’ve had that refilled twice, I know sometimes we need a little pharmaceutical help. I also have a GABA spray I highly recommend for moments that activate our fight or flight response. Like many of us, I practice slow, deep breathing, listen to music (especially during scans, and I’m sure Enya was invented for MRIs), and bring along Ken and sometimes other support people.
For this last scan, I found extra support in the technician, a lovely woman named Melissa who remembered me from last time, talked over the singers I was listening to my iPhone during the scan (Brandi Carlile and Carrie Newcomer), and treated me with such energetic tenderness that she put me at ease. Then there was the wait for results, best spent not speculating — we distracted ourselves by getting brunch at Wheatfields, reveling in the glory of bread. I’m so grateful that my oncologist doesn’t play the phone game (a call if all is fine or a “you need to come in right away” if it’s not) and meets with me a few hours after the scans. As she came in smiling, telling me all was well, to my surprise I started crying, but that’s pretty common with scans.
Each scan is another tumble with seeing how mortal we are. Recently, my therapist and I realized that it wasn’t the scanning machines — CT scans, MRIs, and Pet scans — that freaked me out as much as what the scans might read. At the same time, the whole process makes me fall more in love with this life, enough to spend a long and healthy lifetime grappling with what I keep discovering here.