Tomorrow morning, when I enter the radiology suite at Pennsylvania Hospital, my passport to cancer-land will be stamped yet again. It’s time for my second CT scan.
The first was over the summer, when I was still a little rough around the edges, still working on getting my sea-legs back after treatment. I brought the husband with me; I am pretty sure I had a good-sized case of anxiety ahead of time. There were insurance issues – referrals still being relatively new to me after changing health coverage a few months earlier – and some scheduling mix-ups. It was not a seamless process, and the banana-flavored barium smoothie left a bit to be desired. But the tech was awesome (is there a tech who ISN’T?) and the test itself was utterly painless; I don’t think I even had to undress. Other than what I was warned would be a weird sensation in my “hoo-hoo” after getting the contrast, it really was no big deal.
Then, of course, the wait. Those of us who have been through a scary medical diagnosis know the old adage: bad news travels fast. I mean, REALLY fast. So, in a way, I am comforted when, after a check-up or a diagnostic test, the phone is silent that first evening when I get home. And then the next day, and the next and the day after that. Before you know it, over a week has gone by and you still have absolutely no idea what is going on with your effing test results. But you also know that if there was something bad going on, you would have heard right away.
So there are two kinds of thinking I am engaging in right now – the magical, and the irrational. My magical thinking consists of believing that my health is inextricably linked with how I am feeling. As in, I feel great!! Of course my cancer isn’t making a comeback. I am running almost 6 miles at a time; I am losing weight, feeling strong and looking better than I have in a long, long time (if I do say so myself.) I feel balanced, happy and completely on top of things. It’s simply impossible that I am not well.
And then there is the irrational. It goes something like this: we’re about to buy a house. We just made plans to go to New Orleans. We are on the verge of beginning the adoption process: of course my cancer is back. Of course all of the positivity and good vibes and healing energy that is all around me now is about to be obliterated as I am plunged into the next phase of my cancer nightmare.
In my moments of calm, I recognize that both of these extremes are absurd. My cells are going to do what they are going to do, regardless of how many miles I run, or how many times I have to shop for the next pant size down. As frightening as it is to admit, when it comes to cancer, it’s really out of my control.
At the same time, though, there’s an odd comfort I take in that reality: it’s out of my control. Just like so much of life. I can’t know what my scan will reveal tomorrow; I won’t know what that “undifferentiated” 4mm spot on my liver has got up to in the last six months until someone at my oncologist’s office gets around to picking up the phone and calling me. So, in the mean time…
In the mean time, carry on. Live well. Listen to music. Relax with tea. Play with my dog. Tell my husband I love him. Think about where I will put furniture and hang art in our new house.
Those of us going through these rituals of life with cancer – the check-ups and tests at regular, seemingly unending intervals – know what it’s like to have your reality divided into such discrete segments. We live in three month chunks, or six months, or a year, during which time we can sometimes – often, hopefully – pretend that life is “normal,” or even that cancer never happened. Close your eyes, breathe deeply, feel the strength inside of you, and you might even feel whole again, free of the latent anxiety that usually hovers around the edges of your consciousness.
While living this way makes it hard – sometimes even impossible – to plan for the future with any feeling of confidence or certainty – there is something to be said for having these kind of artificial demarcations define our existence. For these intervals give me a chance to look back, and measure my progress. I remember going to my scan in July – the fierce thunderstorm that rocked Center City that morning, the downpour Mike and I ran through as we dashed from the parking lot to the hospital entrance; the infernal televisions in the waiting room, with Sandra Bullock talking to Matt Lauer about her new movie; the sweat gathering in my armpits as I waited to be called for my test; the nice woman at reception who helped straighten out my referral problem. I laughed with Mike as I grudgingly drank my barium cocktail, making faces with each sip, but it was an edgy laughter, tinged with fear. I needed him with me, to help steady me.
Tomorrow morning, six months later, I will walk in on my own, with the latest New Yorker and a decidedly greater sense of calm. I will drink my barium, and read the profile about Neil Gaiman. I will smile at the other patients waiting for their tests. I will hold all of my thoughts – magical and irrational – firmly inside of me.
When I am called in for my scan, I will engage in pleasantries with the techs. I’ll tell them they can access my port for the IV contrast. The tech will ask me a question or two about how my health is currently, and I will give the obligatory, positive response. My hoo-hoo will tingle. And that will be that.
Then I will walk out the door, onto Spruce Street, on what is supposed to be a sunny, pleasant morning, and head to work. Just like any other day.