There are two nurses that administer PET scans at the hospital where I go for my scans. I’ve lost count at the number of scans I’ve had, but I love that there are only two nurses. The nurse takes my blood sugar to confirm I’ve fasted, and then retrieves a radioactive isotope syringe which he carries around in a lead barrel. (I’m pretty sure this is why there are only two nurses qualified for this particular scan; I can’t imagine how many professional hoops they jumped through in order to be accredited to handle and inject nuclear material into people.) I’ve been in to this department every 3-6 months since I was first diagnosed in 2012, and the details these nurses remember are heart-warming. They give me an extra warm blanket upon arrival. They know I prefer to wait in an intake room in a recliner rather than in the waiting room with trashy morning television blaring. Once I’ve been injected with the material from the lead barrel, the protocol is that I sit and wait for one hour while the radioactive material “marinates”, for lack of a better word. Invariably, I use a lot of that time to pray and reflect. As with every single day of my life, I consciously remind myself not to worry. Worrying is not productive. Attaching more worry to things does not serve any purpose other than to darken the present moment I’m experiencing. Thus, I enjoy my hour wait–but it is a forced enjoyment; a chosen joy. In a way, it makes the time sweeter: I fought for it.
Once an hour has passed, I use the restroom and then head to the room where the big machines are. The nurse is fairly quiet as he knows I don’t need the rote directions he usually utters, but it’s also not a small-talk kind of time and place. On scan days I essentially wear my most comfortable clothes because if my outfit doesn’t have metal in it, I get to wear my own clothes and skip the hospital gown. (A component of the machine is magnetic, so metal both interferes with the images and could whip around inside the machine.) It is a total no brainer to wear sweatpants, obviously (though I kind of want to see what would happen with that metal-whipping-around thing.) As I stretch out on the plank to move into the machine horizontally, I’m greeted with two more warm blankets, one to cover my body, and the other to wrap around my arms like a giant muff. The muff-blanket creation is my idea/request because the hardest part of holding still is not shivering in the cold room. I’m flat on my back with my hands together over my head, often in a posture of prayer. It takes twenty minutes for me to move through the machines as they whir and rumble around me; I think I am lucky to have 20 pure minutes with no connection to the world–a distraction-free 20 minutes is hard to come by in our culture.
I emerge from the machine and confirm that the scan has a STAT read on it. It goes in the queue for the radiologist, who reads it and compares it to past scans, charts a report, and sends it to my oncologist, Dr. Wonderful. I always get the results from Dr. Wonderful.
I leave the hospital with time to kill: I make some returns, I sign Greta up for gymnastics, I make an appointment to get my tires rotated. It is such a paradox that I deal with tire maintenance in the same hour my cancer is measured. My eyes drift as I wander stores; I never buy anything for myself during this hours-long wait. Morbidly, I think, “It will be such a waste of money if I find out I am going to die in a few hours.” Most of the time I can squash these thoughts, but in this reverent window it’s become my ritual to not buy anything. I choose peace, I pray for mercy, I focus on the pleasure of the moment I’m in.
Brad and I meet at Dr. Wonderful’s office. It’s my less-frequented office today, but I still know more than a dozen of the staff and say hello as I move through the waiting room, vitals check, exam room checkpoints. Brad and I sit and watch a family of deer grazing on the hillside behind the office as we wait. We talk about normal things. We hold hands.
These scans don’t really matter. They are a measure of a moment of what’s going on inside my body. One image. The scan doesn’t do anything. We — and by we I actually just mean Dr. Wonderful — gathers information from the scan and use it to plan the best treatment available to treat my cancer. I actively work against scanxiety, and I choose to not tell many people about scans because I don’t want it on my radar more than it needs to be. It’s the same as the worry-thing. There is nothing to be gained in dwelling in the unknown, the fear, the darkness.
The technology at the hospital was down today, so Brad and I heard an unofficial report in the afternoon that turned out to be false. I got a call at home in the evening from Dr. Wonderful (working well past the close of business hours as he often does); he got the official report from the radiologist and it shows a new spot near my esophagus, more active spots, and bigger spots. Crap, crap, crap is what that means. Cancer is progressing, which means it is not being controlled by my current drug(s), so we’re changing treatment again.
Dr. Wonderful is making treatment decisions based on a bajillion variables: what he knows about my body, what he knows about my cancer, past response to various drugs, side effects, my age, vitality, lifestyle. I’ll see him again on Monday and he’ll give me the official plan along and the insurance-approved version. I’ll probably be starting weekly infusions of chemotherapy. I won’t hypothesize much beyond that because it really doesn’t matter. The details are much less important than the overall plan: do today well. (But, yes, inquiring minds want to know: it is likely the chemo is harsh enough I’ll lose my hair again.)
What does this mean? Well, it’s bad news for my overall prognosis. In order for me to live a long life, we need the cancer to cease and desist. So that’s what we’ll keep hoping for and praying for.
But, despite this blow, tonight is not a night of wallowing, whining, or crying. I’ll soothe my sadness with doing things that are good for my soul. I’m playing princess dominoes with Greta, and Chinese checkers with Maren. Brad and I will make plans for the future and hope and dream together, as we always do.
We choose joy, we trust God, we love our life. There is so much I yet want to do.