Scaredy CAT Scan
The robocall came in last week informing me that I would be having a CAT scan on June 27th at 8 a.m. Doctor Z told me this test would take place in July. The county hospital had other plans. So much for planning and predictability. I was supposed to have a blood test 2-3 days before the test, but there was no time for me to do that before the CAT scan. June 27th was my last day of class and I had work to do to get ready for it. Not having been given an option to reschedule, I skipped the blood test and adapted to the circumstances by waking at 3:30 a.m. so that I could have the test. I planned to sleep until 5 a.m., but I tossed and turned and gave up on sleeping.
I sat at the computer and tried to distract my mind from worries over the current state of my health until it was time to leave for the hospital. I passed some blood yesterday and have no explanation for it. That does not sound good to me whether it came from my bladder or some other place. My cancer crisis began with unexplained bleeding.
The problem with worry is that it is as unrelenting as tides, sunrises, sunsets, seasons, and my mom’s patter while I am trying to watch TV. I cannot avoid it and attempts to suppress it end up with me becoming overwhelmed by it. I feel oppressed by the weight of news stories about cancer. Nora Ephron died this week of pneumonia associated with leukemia. Last week there was a memorial service for a woman I worked for in 1994. She died of metastasized breast cancer.
I am 55 years old. I know people who are dying at 61 and 71. That’s not far in the future. But I am not ready to die. What was I doing 6-16 years ago? My life has not changed that much in that timeframe. Will it suddenly tumble down a hill?
At 6 a.m. I sat in my car in the hospital parking lot watching the sun rise over the row of buildings across the street from the hospital. I decided to wait until 7 a.m. before entering the building. Everyone who trolled the parking lot looking for a space paused to pantomime willingness to wait for me to exit. I shook my head. At that point they would communicate frustration with me. I slumped in my seat and recalled the many winter mornings that I waited in my car for the hospital to open its clinics for service. It was dark in those days. No one noticed me while I huddled in the front seat of my car and they made the rounds of the parking lot waiting for a space to open. I always felt like I was alone and invisible in that darkness.
At 7 a.m. I entered the building and ran into a 50+-year-old man wearing bathing trunks and a t-shirt too short to cover his long torso. In light of the size of his protruding gut, he wore his blue bathing trunks slung low and tucked between his belly and his groin. An expanse of hairy belly bore what appeared to be a slice of bacon. I noted it but deliberately looked away because any alternative explanation for it threatened to make me ill. My first thought was that the man exposed himself, but, if so, then his genitalia resembled a fruit roll-up with bacon striping. When I described the sight to one of my students this evening, she speculated that it might have been a withered skin tag. We shuddered over the prospect. He wore flip-flops on this feet. The calves of his legs were hairy. The nails on his toes resembled dried apricots. Maybe he escaped death by a crazed fruit dehydrator.
Suffice it to say that I cringed and ducked to one side when he threw open his arms and said, “Welcome to summer vacation!” I can always count on the county hospital for an adventure.
I passed the long line of patients waiting for the hospital elevators to open and headed for the clinic located across the street. The CAT scan and MRI facility is modern but tacked onto an old hospital across the street from the new hospital. At 7:30 a.m. the doors had yet to be opened. I was the first patient to enter at about 7:50 a.m. The clerk on duty took my I.D. and my proof of county charity coverage and asked me if I had recently had a blood test. I answered that I had not and he became impatient with my failure to follow directions. His tone was dismissive until I explained about the short notice given to me and the fact that the test was to have been given in July. He snorted and informed me that I should check back at the desk before departing and went back to working on his computer. I took a seat. Several minutes later he had some papers for me to sign, which he shook in my general direction. I got up to sign them and he placed a patient I.D. bracelet around my wrist.
Several other women entered the facility while I waited for my name to be called. The TV in the waiting area was set to a program that advertised the Derma Wand, a device that uses radio waves to eliminate facial wrinkles and sagging. I looked at the other patients and realized that no one watched the screen. Even the free TV programming disappoints as you wait for service. You can try to distract yourself from worries over your health, but you soon find yourself wondering whether cancer has returned.
A nurse came in and collected our orders for tests and called out names. Her pronunciation of my name was unintelligible. There was a “Chair-I,” a “Shari, “and a “Mooman” and none of us rose as each of these names sounded foreign to us. Once we realized that there was no one else to respond we rose and followed the nurse to another waiting room.
Once again the TV was set to the same channel. Its “rabbit-ear” antennae were taped to the shelving unit in which the TV had been placed. A large sign warned us not to touch the TV. I sat next to a woman who turned out to be named Joyce, not Shari or Chair-I, or Mooman. She informed me that she was a nurse and that this arrangement was repeated elsewhere in the hospital. She told me that the TV could only receive one channel, undoubtedly the least entertaining one on the “dial.” Needless to say, her recollection of a time when TV stations were selected by spinning a dial meant that she also was in her 50’s.
A technician passed out 1000 ml. bottles of sterile water and styrofoam cups. “Drink all of this,” he informed us. “You have about 1 hour to consume it before your test.” One woman dropped the cup and watched it roll across the floor. She picked it up and drank from it anyway. I closed my eyes and tried to imagine how many germs had collected on the floor and passed to her cup and then to her lips in this haven for disease.
I finished my bottle of water first. It took me 30 minutes. It was warm. It had an aftertaste that made me a little nauseated. A nurse came out of an office, introduced herself to us and told us to drink faster as she could not process us until we had finished drinking water. Then she explained that we should use the changing rooms located around the corner while we removed our bras. She tore off large plastic garbage bags for us to store these garments in while we waited for our tests. I wondered if anyone needed so large a bag for his or her garments. I had a small briefcase with me and stored my bra in it. Then I went back to the waiting room. The nurse called me into her office. She sat directly in front of me so that our knees nearly touched and quizzed me about my health: 1) had I ever had this test before? 2) when? 3) where? 4) did I have high blood pressure? 5) diabetes? 6) any of the following diseases, most of which I never heard of before? 7) cancer? 8) surgery? 9) for what? She stared into my eyes as she made these inquiries as if this were a lie-detector test. Then she installed a little port right in the crook of my arm so that the arm felt useless to me. She tested it. When she was satisfied with its operation, she informed me that I would be injected with a liquid that would provide contrast during the CAT scan. Actually, she said none of that. She simply implied that I would need to flush something from my system after the test by drinking at least 8 glasses of water. I surmised the rest. It was not necessary that I understand what was going on, only that we have some long, intense moments of eye-contact.
I returned to the waiting room and again sat beside Joyce. Moments later the nurse asked me to join her in the corner so that she could ask me my weight. I was directed back to my seat. I know the nurse meant well, but the entire process reminded me of how we used to put on a blindfold and get spun around before we attempted to pin a tail on a donkey. It was hard not to feel dizzy and lost.
Joyce informed me that I looked cold. I was. The room was cold enough to make my fingers numb. She told me that she was having a hot flash. The TV advertised the Food Lover’s Diet. Five of us stared at the screen with no discernable reaction to the program. My bladder was ready to explode. Joyce explained that she had just learned that she had breast cancer. She did not want to know her staging or her prognosis or her chances of survival for 5 or more years. She only wanted to know what the doctors planned to do to her. She told me that she had shared the news of her initial diagnosis with a friend who had immediately reacted by telling her about someone who had recently died of breast cancer.
I told her that I was being treated for uterine cancer. She confided that I was the most calm and serene person that she had so far encountered in the hospital. I was not feeling calm, but I understood how the experience of cancer diagnosis could overwhelm one. She shared with me that she is a pediatric nurse who began her career working with children with cancer until the work burned her out. She told me that she has no medical insurance and that she is terrified that she cannot afford to get well. Then she told me that she is also psychic and her senses informed her that, of the women in the waiting room, I was the one who might be able to answer some of her questions.
My bladder felt like an over-inflated tire as the minutes wore on and no one was called for a CAT scan. I told Joyce that I was not a medical professional and that all this was relatively new for me, too. I explained about the American Cancer Society’s services to patients. I reassured Joyce that she controlled her own medical care and could decide what care she wanted. I described in as few words as possible the county’s charitable program for uninsured patients. I spoke in very general terms about radiation and chemotherapy as I understood that Joyce was not ready to evaluate options. She wanted to know if I lost my hair. She wanted to know if surgery made it impossible for me to work. She wanted no details. She just wanted some reason to believe that a cancer diagnosis was not a death sentence. She wanted to believe that she might still have control over her own destiny. She wanted to know that she was not going to be bald for long, if at all. She wanted someone to tell her she was going to be okay.
I think that everyone sitting there was listening to me, and I was feeling like a fraud because, while everything I said was true, I omitted everything that made my own experience so frustrating, so painful, and so frightening. When Joyce asked me for my phone number, I gave it to her because I have spent hundreds of hours searching the Internet for real stories about cancer and its treatment because I never asked another patient what Joyce asked me. It was months ago that I made plans to join a cancer support group, and I have yet to make it to one meeting because, until last week, I taught on the nights that the group welcomes new members. I could not turn down this stranger’s request for support even if my knowledge is recently acquired and sometimes intuited (as was the case when the nurse and I “discussed” the need to flush contrast fluid from my system). I was reminded of my summer camp experiences when I was a kid. Returning campers would take the hands of new campers and physically lead them to their tents. Sometimes we walked dark trails with our fingers curled around a belt loop on the shorts of the camper ahead of us. We led by following someone else. We reached our destination by stumbling together through places we had never seen. We gave each other courage and, in doing so, we found it had multiplied.
Despite my efforts to stay positive, I must have made someone nervous with my brief description of my life since diagnosis. The only man to have joined the group made a run for it. He bolted from his chair through a door marked “EXIT” and “Authorized Staff Only Beyond This Point.” He still wore a hospital gown and carried his shirt in a plastic trash bag.
I summoned the nurse from her office and she went after him.
The rest of us fell silent.
Joyce gave me her name and phone number. She thanked me for not talking about anything she was not ready to hear and then gave a nod toward the TV, which continued to describe the success of a diet in which people ate more food more frequently. She said, “We all know it won’t work that way because it’s never that easy or none of us would need diets. Nevertheless, we want so much to believe that it can be that easy that we will listen and believe whatever they say.”
I nodded. Then the technician called me for my test. I was instructed to lie down. My port was connected to an IV bag and I was infused with the contrast fluid. I raised my arms over my head and held my breath when instructed to do so. The machine moved me back and forth through a doughnut-shaped scanner. When the test was done I was urged to rest a moment before racing for the bathroom.
It was a relief to empty my poor burnt bladder. I had to struggle my way back into my bra while my right arm continued to be hampered by the port that pinched unbearably in the crease of my elbow. The nurse removed the port and instructed me to press the wound hard until the bleeding stopped. She affixed a huge piece of tape to cover the wound, which tape caught many of the tiny hairs that have started to regrow since chemotherapy’s effects ended.
I waved good-bye to Joyce and stopped at the front desk where the receptionist growled at me for interrupting his computer work, as if he had forgotten that he asked me to let him know when I was leaving.
As I pushed open the clinic’s door and stepped out into the embrace of the ten o’clock sun, I felt like I had left behind a new camper. I felt free but also a little guilty. I found myself hurrying through the hospital’s first floor to the parking garage. I hopped into my car and headed for the exit. I handed a five dollar bill to the attendant and pulled out onto the street and all the nervous fears of the prior night and that morning dissipated like dew on flowers. No matter how comforting it is to have company in the forest while we walk a hazardous path, there is nothing to compare with the sensation (even if fleeting) that one has emerged from the forest. Cancer may follow me, but there are moments when all I feel is free.