PET Scan a.k.a. Pure Emotional Torture
About two weeks before my PET scan, I found myself sitting on the floor, in the corner of the living room, my arms hugging my drawn up knees, tears streaking down my face. I didn’t want to go get a scan and get bad news. Again. I didn’t want to die. I lay awake at night and my brain played the same set of scenes on an endless cruel loop: Me sitting in a doctor’s office receiving news of metastatic cancer, the pitiful looks, the pats on the back. Me sliding into the scanner tunnel and the techs glancing at me with sad eyes. Me being told I have to do surgery and chemotherapy all over again but this time for an organ I can’t live without. I would wake up sweaty and stare into the darkness, knowing I wouldn’t know anything for many days.
It wasn’t always like that. My very first PET scan was a little over a year before this one. Back then, I marched in confidently, fueled by the reassurances of my eye cancer surgeon that he didn’t see any metastasis beyond my eye. I joked with the nurse and watched a movie while waiting for the radioactive injection to soak in the cells of my body. Afterwards I went to have sushi with friends, my mind carefree. About a week later, while on a vacation in Florida, I got the good news of a clear scan. No metastasis beyond my eye, just like my eye cancer surgeon, Dr. F., predicted. The only thing that I hated about the scan at that time was its price.
Then came May 2013. The second PET scan. Just a follow up, my eye surgeon assured me. I went in, still fairly confident, but for some reason a little nervous. Perhaps it was my body telling me something was not right. I went through the procedures, the injection, the scan, changing of clothes, and finally the hospital spit me out on 8th Avenue. As I rushed towards the Penn Station, I calculated which train I would be able to catch to go home and get on with my life. As I watched the screens to see which track I should go to, my cell phone rang.
“Eva? It’s Dr. F. here, I am on my way to the airport, but I wanted to talk to you about your scan before I left.” My heart sank. Dr. F. never called unless it was something important. “So, they didn’t see anything around your eye, all that is clear, but they did see something in your left breast.” He paused momentarily.
“OK..” I said quietly, still staring at the monitor for my train track but not seeing anything.
“It’s nothing bad, it’s less than 1cm, but I already called my friend, Dr. O. She should expect your call. Make an appointment with her as soon as you can. She is a breast oncologist.” Here was the O word again. I had not heard it for almost 10 months at that point and almost forgot its punch. It stood up on its hind legs in front of me like a dragon, watching me with its fiery eyes, bright red tongue in its open mouth, dripping with poisonous despair.
“Are you OK?” I heard Dr. F. ask.
“Uh…yeah…I…yeah, I am fine.” I stuttered. I went on with the rest of the conversation as my legs carried me with the crowd towards the train track.
Fifteen minutes later, I sat on a wooden bench in the transit station, waiting for my second train. I made the appointment with Dr. O’s office. As I explained the PET scan finding, a man sitting at the other end of the bench watched me. I was afraid to look at him, afraid to see that pity look that I learned to withstand during my eye cancer episode. I spent the hour long train ride home staring out the window, using all my willpower to hold it together until I was safely home. I couldn’t believe I was basically just given a second cancer diagnosis in less than a year. I felt so tired. Drained. Given up. Done.
Two months later I lay on an operating table getting a bilateral mastectomy, my mind cluttered with terms like triple positive breast cancer, aggressive type, DCIS, IBC, chemotherapy, radiation, port, FMLA, long term disability, PTO, side effects, long term implications.
So here I was, two weeks before my third PET scan ever and I was losing it. Not only I already had two cancers, the May PET scan also showed something in my liver and lungs. Those “somethings” supposedly “…didn’t look like cancer” so nobody paid attention to them for almost eight months at this point. In my mind though, those somethings grew into lung and liver cancer and I was going to die. I was sure of it.
I oscillated between fits of crying and angry outbursts. This was bullshit, I thought, I had not even really started my life. I JUST got married. What the hell was going on? I was not supposed to have all these problems. I wasn’t supposed to die, was I? The thought of possibly having to do chemotherapy again brought me to the verge of a nervous breakdown. I couldn’t concentrate on work. The PET scan was all I could think about. I couldn’t stop myself from browsing the internet to see what the possible treatment plans were for lung and liver cancers. The last three nights before the scan day, I had to take Valium to get at least some sleep.
I drove to the hospital on December 30, 2013 to get my 1PM PET scan done with an empty stomach, a mind bursting with terrified thoughts, a heart squeezed by fear, wooden legs and a dry throat. I got checked in and a while later a very tall man, Mr. H., came to get me. He must have been at least 6’4”, wore glasses and explained everything he was doing to me. Like a Gulliver in the land of Lilliputians, he kept bumping into the furniture and dropping various things. His pen kept rolling off the desk, and a piece of tape destined for my arm got stuck on a chair instead. As I sipped the ice cold contrast dye drink and he worked on my radioactive injection, I found this chaotic beginning to my PET scan oddly calming.
I was then ordered to lay in the darkness for about 45 minutes to wait, again, for the radioactive material to permeate my cells. No TV watching like the first time, no Kindle reading like the second time. Just me and my thoughts in the dark. Endless 45 minutes.
Finally, I was called into the scan room. Mr. H. secured me on the sliding table and there I was. Looking at the curved grey ceiling of the machine again. Through an inch wide opening I saw its giant cylinder spinning, humming and slicing my body with images. I rode in and out of the machine several times and then inched forward as the more detailed scan progressed. I wondered about what was illuminating the screens in the other room and wanted to see. I just wanted to know.
I drove home using the express lanes. At almost 5PM I finally ate and drank something for the first time that day. My head throbbed. I felt like I just finished a really difficult exam. I felt empty as if my body had no adrenaline left. I knew that I possibly wouldn’t know the results until two days later because of the New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day holiday. Despite that, I could not help myself and called the hospital right at 5PM just in case the radiologist had time to read the scan. No luck. I was disappointed but relieved at the same time. Bad news could wait.
The next morning, I tried to work and kept watching the clock. I knew the hospital was closing at noon for New Year’s Eve. If I didn’t find out that morning, I would have to wait till after New Year’s Day. When was an appropriate time to call? Around 9:30 AM I couldn’t stop myself and I dialed the hospital. I had to leave a message with the secretary and wait for a call back from the doctor. My stomach felt so tight a pea wouldn’t fit in. My throat was dry and I kept jumping from task to task at work, never quite finishing anything.
Then my phone rang. DC number. The hospital.
“Hello?” I said and a sudden calmness came over my body. As if it got ready to accept whatever the news were going to be. I looked straight ahead of me, at the plain white wall in front of my desk.
“Hi, Eva, this is Dr. B, I heard that you would like to know the results of your PET scan?” OF COURSE I WANT TO KNOW THE DAMN RESULTS! I wanted to scream, calmness gone. I sat up straight in the chair and it felt like every cell in my body was vibrating with anticipation.
“Well, let me see here…so there is no metastasis, so that’s good news!” Dr. B. announced. That’s it? I was annoyed.
“What about the liver and the lung spots?” I asked irritated, impatient.
“Uhmm…let me read this real quick…” Dr. B. stalled. Christ, hurry UP! My mind was twitching.
“OK…so the liver thing could not be visualized and the lung nodule is unchanged, same size and everything. So we will just keep watching that one, but you shouldn’t worry about that now.”
“So there is nothing lighting up as cancer?” I reiterated.
“No, looks good for now.” Dr. B. said.
When I hung up, I looked back at the white wall. It seemed brighter. I leaned back in my chair and breathed out. I got good news? Did I really get good news just now? I felt a cautious smile spread across my face.