The 5-Hour Brain Tumor
“So, have you noticed anything different about your eye?” My breast cancer oncologist asked, peering at my left eye with interest. The same eye that had cancer not even a year ago. It was around noon on a Tuesday, two days before my last chemo was scheduled.
“No, why?” I asked perplexed and then rushed to explain: “If you mean that it’s red, yeah, I am kind of tired today, I didn’t get much sleep…”
“No, it’s not that”, she said, circling around me, all the while staring into my eyes, “it’s just that it looks like it drifted a little. It’s not looking straight ahead like the other one.”
Huh? I thought in my head. What was she talking about? I looked at myself every day in the mirror and saw no difference, nothing weird.
“What do you think?” My oncologist turned to her colleague, the one I called ‘doctor-in-training’ because she always came into the exam room after the nurse, but before my doctor.
“I noticed it too.” She said in her British accent. “I noticed it right away, as soon as I walked in.”
OK, shut up already! I wanted to scream. My eye is perfectly fine, what are you both talking about? Let me be! This was supposed to be just a stupid routine exam! No new problems, no new diseases.
They both walked around me like hungry lions looking at my eyes as I sat on the exam table, my legs dangling, my hands fidgeting with the end of my belt. I stared back at them, not knowing which eye on each of their faces to focus on. Do I look in the left eye or the right eye? Do I stare at that point where their eyebrows would meet if they didn’t meticulously pluck them? Or do I just stare over their head and out the window?
“Hmm…”. My oncologist said, crossing her arms over her chest, then lifting one hand to her mouth and sweeping her finger over her lips back and forth like a windshield wiper. “I want an MRI. Yeah, let’s get an MRI done. Today. Or a CT scan. Probably a CT scan since you have magnets in your expanders. I’ll put the order in. I’ll go look if they have a slot for today. I want this done before we proceed with the chemo.” She spit out the orders like a machine gun fire. She gave me one last stare and walked out of the office to start the wheeling and dealing.
“Oh, you can get dressed.” She peeked back in.
The doctor in training followed her master and I was left alone.
I pulled my turtleneck back on and sat down in the chair by the doctor’s desk. My head spun with a vortex of panicked thoughts: What just happened? Why does she need a CT scan? Why does she need it today? Why can’t I possibly have chemo two days from now? What is she thinking I have? Does she think I have a brain tumor because something may be pushing on my eye muscle?
I sat there staring at the paper towel dispenser over the sink, barely blinking. The nurse came in to take my blood as she usually did during my pre-chemo exams.
“Hi there”, she greeted me happily, “I hear they are setting up a CT scan for you today?”
I felt my eyes fill up with tears and I tried to answer: “Yeah, they…” I tried to stiffle a sob, “they need it because of my eye.”
The doctor peeked her head in again, looked at me and said something to the nurse. I don’t remember what she said. I just remember taking a deep breath when the needle went in my vein as the hot tears dripped in my lap off my face.
I was ushered back into the waiting room to wait for when the CT scan would happen. Chelsea, my chemo nurse, just happened to come out from the back and waived hello, immediately noticing my red eyes. She sat on the chair next to me and listened to my story. Her eyes were such a rich brown color as she gazed at me and I felt like a stuttering idiot telling her how scared I was. She hugged me and I felt the chair arm rest digging into my stomach as we leaned in closer. It was a pity hug, the one you give people when you know their life really sucks and you don’t know what else to say or do.
I waited another half an hour before all was set up for a 3:15pm CT scan of my head. I decided to drive home, stay there for only about 45 minutes and drive right back. I didn’t care I was going to spend two thirds of the time on the road. I didn’t care about putting miles on the car or wasting my time driving back and forth. I just wanted to get away from the hospital. From the cold, sterile beast that kept spitting problems at me. It attracted disease and sadness like a giant white magnet and then wiped it off on anyone who entered its hungry belly.
At home, I walked my dog, trying to stop the panic attack in its tracks. I didn’t succeed and felt more tears rolling down my cheeks and into my wool scarf around my neck. The cold wind made my wet face cold but I didn’t care.
Soon after, I got back in the car and drove back to the hospital. I felt like Marie Antoinette being led to the guillotine. The road was blurry from more tears and as I got stuck in traffic I saw with the corner of my eye some woman staring at me from a car next to me.
In the hospital I sat in the imaging center and texted my friends to distract myself. I had to wait till almost 4 pm, well past my scheduled time because my insurance was taking its sweet time to approve this scan. Finally, they called my name and I was led into the scan room and laid down on the table. The nurses were really cheery and it got on my nerves. Can’t you see I am a nervous wreck? I wanted to yell at them. Just hurry up and scan my damn head so I know what’s going on! Instead, I politely smiled when one of them said: “I used to have that hair cut once.” Referring to my bald head wrapped in a scarf. My brain screamed: I don’t care lady! I don’t care about your cancer, your Mom’s cancer, your aunt’s cancer or anybody else’s! All I care about right now is if I have a fucking brain tumor and if I am going to die! SCAN MY HEAD!
They prepped the needle in my arm for the contrast dye and walked out the room. As I slid into the tunnel, I closed my eyes and listened to the hum of the indifferent machine. It didn’t care what it revealed, one slice of my head at a time. I thought of what would happen if I actually had a brain tumor and images of somber surgeons, 12-hour surgeries and half my head missing flew through my mind.
The nurse came back in the room to inject the contrast dye.
“So which eye was it again that they think is not straight?” She asked me, looking at me with those eyes. Those eyes that look at you like something is wrong. Oh God.
“The left one.” I said watching her face intently. I couldn’t read what she was thinking through her fake smile. She left the room and the scan resumed. At this point I felt my body give up. I just laid there, the machine humming and clicking around me. I left my eyes opened and watched the grey curve of the tunnel above me.
After the scan I made my way back to the oncologist’s office as instructed. By now, it was 5pm. I had not eaten anything that day yet except for coffee in the morning. The nurse greeted me and ushered me to the same exam room again, except this time she couldn’t hide the concerned look on her face. I sat on the same exam room table as almost 5 hours ago, legs dangling. It was getting dark outside, making the fluorescent lights that much brighter. I waited another 20 minutes before the nurse peeked in to tell me that my oncologist was on the phone with my eye melanoma doctor. Great. I imagined them discussing how to tell me that I have a couple months of life left and to put my affairs in order. I sat there, in that exam room, clutching my winter jacket. Waiting. And waiting.
Finally, around 5:30, the ‘doctor in training’ came in the room. Damned! Get me the real doctor I wanted to scream. I need to know NOW what’s going on! She sat down in the chair by the computer and looked at me with her immaculately made up face – red lipstick and perfect eyeliner.
“Well, so the results came back.” She said in her British accent and looked away. Oh god, I thought. I stopped breathing.
“And…the scan is clear. There are no abnormalities noted.” She looked back at me.
I stared back at her. Two seconds ticked by. I started breathing again. It’s clear? You mean, I don’t have a brain tumor? There is nothing wrong with my head? The room spun in front of me.
“It’s clear?”, I stuttered, “like there is nothing showing that’s out of ordinary?”
“Yes”, she smiled, “but the doctor wants you to make an appointment with an ophthalmologist this Friday to make sure everything is OK with the eye.”
Whatever. I didn’t care about that. I didn’t even know what she said afterwards. I just remember driving home in the dark and finally eating something at 7pm for the first time that day.