Everyone talks about the traumas of the cancer treatment itself, but let’s take a few minutes to think about the trauma of waiting… think World Cup results being postponed for a week after you have watched a game under tension; think having to wait six months for a letter saying you have passed or failed your driving test; think waiting for a kettle to boil; and then you will understand the last few weeks of what is known as my life with the c. word.
I have done the rounds, the surgery, the radiation and chemo. Yet the MRI has shown the cancer cells march on fiercely holding on to a few centimeters of my body’s territory. Their tenacious nerve fibers are buried somewhere in my chest and under my arm. Just a little over one centimeter across, the size of a healthy leech, they no doubt learned their methods in the primeval rain forests where leeches and cancer cells must have marched together in a war against a stone age population. Perhaps the cancer cells survived by burying themselves deep in bodies, while the leeches hung on to the skins of their victims. If only we could burn the cancer cells off like we can leeches.
Off track again, the present wait is about doctors wondering whether any further treatment is possible. Can the cancer cells be dislodged from the nerves by surgery without causing a huge amount of damage, or could a cyber knife deftly radiate just the cancer cells. In the last two years (the length of this last bout) I have mounted an attack against cancer with state of the art treatment. It is difficult to imagine a world where there is no more treatment available. It feels like the troops are pulling out of the cancer war leaving the native (me) at huge risk.
I wait it out. Two more days until the PET scam (scan/scam. Freudian slip). Just to remind ourselves, a PET scan is a radioactive examination where a strange potion is injected and you can’t go near children for a few days. I am slightly freaked out by the fact that my wait is blamed on the intergalactic machine, which is broken, and I am convinced that I will be the patient testing the repair. You know the feeling, when you drive your car away from the repair shop only to turn around and drive it back when the strange noise recurs. My worst thought is that it will develop a radiation leak. I had all these paranoid worries when I went to sleep last night only to wake up this morning to read, in an online article in the New York Times ['Americans get Most Medical Radiation in the World']:
“… Too much radiation raises the risk of cancer. That risk is growing because people in everyday situations are getting imaging tests done far too often. [...]
Questions to ask about radiation scans:
–Is it truly needed? How will it change my care?
–Have you or another doctor done this test on me before?
–Are there alternatives like ultrasound or MRI?
–How many scans will be done? Could one or two be enough?
–Will the dose be adjusted for my gender, age and size? Will lead shields be used to keep radiation away from places it can do harm?
–Do you have a financial stake in the machines that will be used?
–Can I have a copy of the image and information on the dose?
[Dr Fred] Mettler suggests bringing a blank CD or thumb drive with you.
”You should have all of your stuff digitally on something,” he said. ”I keep mine on my laptop.””
I love these questions because two weeks ago when I had my MRI I was bombarded with irrelevant questions like ‘Are you pregnant?’ Now I have questions of my own. Yes, many doctors have done many tests. How many are you allowed? At 70 I’m sure I’ve had too many. My favorite in the above list is: “Do you have a financial stake in the machine?” I’ll ask the first technician I see and I bet they say, “my job depends on it.”
I would love to bring a CD with me and get a recording of my examination. It could record the technicians discussing their social lives or me lying in a tube with Frank Sinatra as background music. But as to regulating the dose of radiation, I think I’m the last person who should have a say in it. I barely know how many gallons of petrol I need to fill my car or how many kilos of anything feed four people.
When I finally got to the scan I needed to lie for an hour on an examination bed and wait for the radioactive stuff to go through my body. I wasn’t allowed to read because engaging my eyes meant I failed the exam.
My ears were attacked by an hour of Frank Sinatra which was particularly irritating because I was trying to visualize myself laying on a sandy beach and drifting off to sleep.
My ‘funny bone’ has developed a cancer of its own. My sense of humor gets darker and darker. My friend asked if I could go to a concert in about a month and the response, “If it doesn’t interfere with my funeral” keeps popping into my mind.
Tomorrow the wait will be over. My voice has come back and my hair is looking a bit better, I have more energy and my friends say that I’m looking well. I walked out of my flat today and a very serious looking Indian sikh stopped me and said, “you have a lucky face. This will be a good month for you.” Moments like this make me love London – and who knows he may be right.