Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Sounds and Tastes -- the CT Scan

For my birthday, I asked Brian for new headphones. In particular, I suggested the "Beats by Dre" because my friend, another suburban mom-lawyer who I wish I could be more like, raved about them. When I made this gift suggestion, I figured the headphones would be no more than $100.

On my birthday, the kids helped me rip open the box. They had told me at least 50 times that Brian got me a "colow pwintew" (color printer) and I was pretty sure they were part of Brian's ploy. (Brian and I learned a while ago never to tell the kids a secret about what we got each other so Brian has started the amusing tradition of telling them a lie about what he got me.)

Let me tell you a few things about these new headphones. First, I am certain I look absolutely ridiculous in them. Second, they smell fabulous, like new leather. Third, they cost about three times what I thought they would cost, and I'd have returned them because of that but for the fact that...Fourth, the music is absolutely unreal. The headphones drown out other noise and then they make every note that is supposed to be heard sound so damn good. I'm kind of obsessed.

On the box of the Beats is a quote by Dr. Dre. He says, "People aren't hearing all the music." I like that, and in many ways, I think he's right. For proof, the other day on the train, the music sounded so good that I listened to a Bruce Springsteen song that I usually skip past. The song was "Queen of the Supermarket" and the first verse starts like this:

There's a wonderful world where all you desire
And everything you've longed for is at your fingertips
Where the bittersweet taste of life is at your lips

I teared up then and there, amidst the smell of body odor and pot that so often fills the subway. "Bittersweet taste of life." Yes, precisely. 

*  *  *

I think I knew that I was heading towards rock bottom of my "recurrence rut" when, last night, I was almost numb with fear. I didn't take an Ativan because I was supposed to work today, but I am sure I could have benefited from one. Instead, I hoped that I would wake up, go to the gym, release some anxiety, and get through one more day until my CT scan. 

I woke up this morning feeling absolutely exhausted, which terrified me, despite that it was 5:15. I know that it's normal to be tired at 5:15 but it's not normal for me (at least, not after I've brushed my teeth). I recalled Kristin telling me that fatigue was another reason that she had had a feeling that something was wrong.

On the drive to the gym, the hair on the back of my neck stood up. I felt cancer; was so sure of it that I started to think about how I would live my life for the next few months knowing that I was about to die. I tried to psych myself up; I told myself, You will do it. You will find peace and you will say goodbye when you need to. But then, I started to cry at the thought of how much I wasn't ready to say goodbye. Of how much I wanted to still be alive. 

When I got to my class (I am still loving my Crossfit), I tried to hold it together. But I couldn't. I felt the cancer in my chest as I rolled out my sore legs. I wanted to carve the tumors out but there was no way to escape them. I panicked and thought I may throw up in the bathroom. I had to leave.

Luckily, I know the owner of the gym well enough that I told him why I had to bolt before we had even started the workout. "It's back," I told him, too scared to have a functioning edit button. "I know that it's back." He told me it wasn't, that I had done everything I could have done to beat it. But I didn't believe him. And I felt so badly that soon, my tragic test results would shock him and everyone else into seeing that they had been wrong about me; that I had been wrong about me. That I had not, at least not literally, beat cancer. 

I bawled my eyes out the whole way home. It wasn't even six yet so when I crawled back in bed sobbing, I kind of shocked the hell out of Brian. "This is it," I told him. "I can't do this anymore. I need to figure this out." He agreed, probably still totally confused as to what was going on. 

When I first scheduled my MRI a few weeks ago, I did so at a time that was relatively convenient for my work schedule. I tried to balance a whole bunch of things the week of that test. But this morning was different. This morning, I had fallen back into survival mode, that mode I remembered from my surgery and chemo days, where I couldn't focus on anything but figuring out if my body was going to allow me any more life. 

I called out of work (i.e., emailed my most supportive colleagues and friends), and sent messages to my doctor through approximately four different avenues. By 9am, my test was rescheduled to this afternoon. One o'clock. Thank goodness. Because I would rather have been physically tortured than wait another day. 

*  *  *

The hours home alone before Brian picked me up for the test were dreadful. I felt like a ghost in my own house. I tried to distract myself by fixing a computer problem I've been having (Shockwave plug-in, you are not my friend), but instead, I found myself staring at Brian's screen saver (a photo of him with Teddy and Annabel) and wondering if they really would be OK without me.

When I checked in at the radiology desk in the Dana building, I was fighting to stand up straight. The receptionist asked my name and my birthday. She found me in the computer and, with all good intentions, looked at my schedule and remarked, "Well that's great, you have an easy day today! Just this one test!" Easy day was not exactly what this one had felt like for me, but I was in no position to rationally explain that. Plus, I actually felt bad for this woman as I grunted in response and she continued typing away. I felt bad because she had failed so miserably at her effort to be nice, and it's never fun to watch someone fail so miserably. 

Then we waited. I shook and drank water and filled out my own paperwork despite that I struggled to remember the date. Finally, a man called my name and brought me back. I thought I was going in for the test but it turned out these were only screening questions. Brian joined me for those and stood very displeased as the man rattled off questions to me with less empathy than someone behind the desk at the RMV (Brian's line, not mine).


"Three. Ten. 1980."

"You've had CT scans before, right?"



"Well, I had one before cancer but none after."

"OK. Have you ever had a reaction to an injection?" I was confused. He repeated the question. 

"I don't know. I had a bad reaction to a chemo drug. Is that an 'injection'?" 

"No, I mean contrast." 

"Contrast? Um, no, I don't think so." 

He asked me more questions, kept typing with his back to me, and then sent us out to wait in the waiting room again. I wasn't impressed.

A while later, it was time for the test. In that most scary of rooms, I met two angels. Actually, I met another angel in the waiting room, too, but these stories will have to wait for another day as I'm too tired to do them justice tonight. But I will tell those stories soon and they are really beautiful ones.  

*  *  *

I knew I could get the results as soon as tonight but I figured it would be tomorrow. Nevertheless, I gave Brian my cell phone because, like when we waited for my biopsy results, I didn't want to have such horrible words etched in my brain forever. When Brian picked up just before dinner time, I was in the basement crawl space digging out a box of old baby shoes that Annabel wanted to give her "cousin," JJ, who Brianne and Seamus had brought by to visit. 

"It's Dr. Bunnell," I heard Brian say from upstairs. I dropped the box of shoes, nearly collapsed, then somehow made it up the old wooden stairs. 

Brian was listening carefully and after what felt like an eternity (it was probably five seconds), he smiled. "Good news." 

I fell to the kitchen floor, with so much relief and thankfulness that I could barely catch my breath. Teddy and Annabel came running over soon after and I had to explain to them that sometimes people cry because they're so happy. They looked really confused and I had to keep telling them I was crying because I was happy. Eventually, they believed me and they were really happy too, although I was glad they didn't join me in crying. I know, I should probably try to keep all that emotion behind closed doors but Dr. Bunnell called when all the doors happened to be open. 

Dr. Bunnell explained that these results are preliminary. The protocol calls for two radiologists to review the scans and by dinner time, only one had reviewed them. Dr. Bunnell knew I was a wreck and so he was kind enough to call with the good news, even if it was only preliminary.

I can't explain the relief that these results brought me. I still don't know why my chest hurts, but with a clean MRI of the soft tissue and a clean CT scan of the bones, lungs, chest wall, and lymph nodes, I feel confident that my pain is what my oncology team has suspected all along -- "post-surgical musculoskeletal pain." I feel confident that the intruder is not the Intruder and that relief is so great that I feel like I could float away.

Tonight, as I ate dinner with family and friends and tucked my kids in bed, I really did feel like everything I longed for was at my fingertips. The paralyzing fear and crushing numbness had lifted like a fog and I could, once again, feel the wonderful world around me.

But of course, it's not that simple, not once one has lingered in the Kingdom of the Ill. Now that I am finding my way back to the rational world, I am starting to see that so much of this recent torment for me stems from the torment that Kristin and her family is experiencing with her recurrence of HER2+ breast cancer. The bittersweet taste of life. So true. Because the relief that I feel right now exists largely because I know that I can avoid, at least, for now, the indescribable challenges that good, innocent, and loving people like Kristin must face. I tasted that pain in these past few weeks and I can say for certain, it's a taste no human being should ever have to bear. 


  1. Omigosh, omigosh, omigosh...and Yessss!!!! but worry, relief, love and empathy collide...not always a clear path to walk. Great news -- we'll take it!!!! Be well and think well! Happy, healthifying hugs to Kristin too... xo

  2. Such a brave, beautiful face I will get to see as our work days fly by. Thanks for sharing your experience. You make us all stronger.

  3. You write this so simply and honestly that I was crying as you were on your way to the gym. How much we take for granted, those of us who don't have the Intruder hanging in the background all the time. True, we all have our demons and obstacles, but you confront everything so well and so bravely. Yet you remain a princess, as fair as she is lovely, as kind as she is beautiful.