Today was my annual oncology appointment with scans. I have written in the past about the stress these appointments give me. Oncologists and their treatment protocols are all very different and discovering metastatic cancer early does not necessarily increase longevity but my doctor likes to scan yearly if a patient’s insurance will pay for it and since my does, I usually have these scans in the late winter or early spring. As an aside, my particular breast cancer is not one that is considered “cured” after X number of years. It is complicated and many factors come into play but the chance of recurrence or metastases, however small, persists with many cancers.
The price of reassurance that these scans give me is at the cost of a very angst and stress filled time before the appointment day itself; I start seeing it circled in red in my mind’s eye on a calendar about a month beforehand. Another potential day to divide my life into “before” and “after”. I resolve each year to handle my anxiety with faith and prayer and meditation and I make a valiant effort to do so. My journal fills up with quotes and bible verses and reassurances that all devolve into a simple “Lord please help me with my fear” a day or two ahead of time.
The appointment day itself is an exhausting one. I checked in at 6:50 this morning (well, I was late, it was more like 7:05) and had to chug a bottle of water once I arrived because I hadn’t had enough for the CT scan. (As an aside, they don’t make you drink that nasty contrast at my center anymore.) After I waited just a few minutes, I was called back to get an IV cannula placed and blood drawn for routine lab work. Only took two sticks – my veins are shit – and then it was onto what I call the “bone scan prep place”. A bone scan – not to be confused with a bone density scan – requires a radioactive tracer be injected into your bloodstream to be absorbed. Once you are sufficiently radioactive (the absorption process takes 2 1/2 hours) you can be scanned.
In the interim, I had the CT scan which scans my pelvic, abdomen, and chest area and the things which lie within. CT stands for computerized tomography. During the scan a contrast material is injected into the aforementioned IV which produces a warm “did I pee myself?” sensation. And at CARTI there are groovy colored lights which change color on the ceiling which leads you to believe that maybe you took more than the (first) xanax you took. Oh and there is also an annoying recorded voice telling you to breathe and hold your breath and then breathe normally But the entire process isn’t lengthy, is much more open than an MRI or a PET scan, and you get a warm blanket for your troubles.
After the CT, I had a break in which I wandered down to the “bistro” where it appeared to be a time between the breakfast and lunch offerings so I made the ill-fated decision to go with a packaged salad. I have not eaten inside a restaurant since last March and I wasn’t about to start with the cancer cafe (despite the fact that it was nearly empty) so I took it outside since the weather has warmed up remarkably here. The glare on my kindle/ebook was only enhanced by the horror of a day old salad so I ditched the food, went back in to get a Reese cup and a diet coke and went back to the waiting area. One of my great accomplishments in life from this point forward will be eating a Reese cup in a mask in a waiting room.
At 10:30 I was called back for the bone scan. This test takes a while longer – about a half hour – and you are strapped to a table that is much too narrow for those such as myself. You do, however, get another heated blanket. Everyone knows that you cannot ask the radiology techs to tell them if images they see indicate that you are a goner or if everything looks okay. Nonetheless, I tend to try and interpret their voices and attitudes – are they being more sympathetic than when I came in? Is this something I need to be concerned about? You also get a jolt of anxiety when the tech asks “you ARE seeing the doctor today, right?” as you are getting up to leave. I wanted to say “are you asking so you can tell the radiologist to get a move on reading the scan or because I lit up like the Osbornes in 1993 at Christmastime?” (vague central Arkansas reference) I said neither of these things by the way. I just said yes.
By this point, it was a few minutes after 11:00 and my actual appointment with my doctor was scheduled for 11:45. Perfect timing, except I feared that the bone scan might not be read by that point. I had brought with me a delightfully murderous true crime book which had kept me relatively occupied in all of my waiting thus far. However, by the time I made it to the last waiting area, I had given up all pretense of reading or doing anything besides worrying, imagining worst case scenarios, reciting the Lord’s Prayer and exchanging a few text and messages with people in my support system. So I waited, and waited, and waited. You tend to see the same people all day who are going through the same tests and appointments that you are going through and I saw several people who I had seen in the other waiting rooms all day get called back before me. Finally, around 12:45 I was called back to the exam room.
Bless the nurse who has to deal with me on these appointments. I made very nervous small talk while answering her questions and just wanting to see those test results. She left after a few minutes to go find them and I waited again. It was probably only around 7 or 8 minutes but I had come up with so many scenarios in my mind about the cause of the delay. Finally my oncologist came in, and the first thing she told me was that everything was ok. As always, I asked her repeatedly if she was sure and she showed me the printouts. No evidence of metastatic disease in any of the results. I have a fatty liver, which has been an issue for quite some time, but nothing new. The relief I felt when I heard the news was indescribable After a brief exam and some conversation, we decided to continue on with my current regiment of treatment, which is a daily pill called anastrozole and an injection every three months of zoladex. Both of these medications suppress estrogen and are initially recommended for five years but with no adverse side effects and due to my age, there is no harm in continuing them. If it ain’t broke and all that.
My last stop before leaving CARTI was to get my zoladex injection/implant. This injection is not for the faint of heart but honestly after all I go through emotionally, the injection/implant is the least of my issues! My relief and the second xanax aided in the process being just a blip in my day. (For future reference the second xanax was in no way helpful and just gave me a wicked headache!)
So here I am, back at home. I have informed everyone of my good news. I took a shower to wash all the CARTI cooties off 🙂 – as an aside, their COVID procedures and precautions are top notch and they have their one stop shop of all the testing and appointments to an exact science.
In the light of all my relief and good news, sometimes I wonder why me? I often have wondered that over the years. Why did I get sick, at the age of 38 but have such a successful response to chemotherapy and surgery. Why did friends of mine who were diagnosed at the same time succumb to the effects of this malady? Why, why, why? There is no answer. I know that. But then at the same time I think that each and every time I get a good test result, it should be the motivation for something bigger, something more grand. A second, third, ninth chance to be the best person I can be. And I do believe that my experience with cancer has allowed me to be much more introspective and thoughtful than I was in my 20s and 30s. But now that the fateful deadline has passed with another reprieve, shouldn’t I make more of an effort to do more, be more, live more?
I recently discovered the poet Mary Oliver and purchased a book of her poetry that goes along with a study I am doing for Lent. I had heard this line “wild and precious life’ in a quote before but never read the entire poem. Despite my good news today, there is still a global pandemic, people continue to suffer, and our country and world continues to face issues and problems that can only be solved with the cooperation of all who seek justice and equality for all. But tonight, looking forward, I am thankful for yet another renewal and another chance to do more with my “one wild and precious life.”
Karri Temple Brackett
February 23, 2021