Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Testing, testing 1-2-3

So I am yet again getting ahead of myself and leaving out important detail that I need to share in order for you all to get the true experience of my 'gap year'. 

I mentioned in a previous post that I was inundated with appointment letters asking me to come in to discuss treatment or undergo tests in order to ensure I would be having the right type of treatment and, as I would learn later, to determine if the cancer had spread beyond the breast. However my complete naivety about this whole process and what exactly an MRI and a CT scan were used for, didn't ring any alarm bells for me. I just thought that I had to have them because it helped the experts to pin down what the cancer looked liked. I know you're thinking surely she must know, but I can honestly say hand on heart - or is that hand on tit- it never ever occurred to me that the cancer could be anywhere else than where I had found it. So bar the fact of my nervousness of not knowing what the process for the respective tests entailed, it was probably good that I hadn't fully grasped what these tests could tell me. 

So the appointments came. Firstly for an MRI. Now I had heard of the MRI procedure and I think I had even seen one being done on TV, but I didn't really know what they we're used for and what they showed. Again until I was diagnosed with cancer I always thought I was really well informed about things in life, but it appears it was all rather superficial. A fine example of smoke and mirrors because once you start digging down further it was apparent I had absolutely no clue about the intricacies or finer detail at all which on hindsight I find quite alarming considering the enormity of what lie ahead. 

The appointment was scheduled for a Thursday afternoon. It happened to be on the same day as a dinner date in London with friends that my partner and I had arranged months ago. I was determined that things would go on as normal and this wretched cancer and the tests that went with it would not wreck havoc with my social life too. Also never the one to miss out on a good meal I certainly wasn't going to let a little old scan get in the way of some good scoff and fun company!!!

With the appointment letter came some information about the procedure and what to expect. They try to make it sound like its very normal and not anything to be scared of. However the reassurances that this is a routine procedure and should not cause any discomfort makes me feel they are holding back. Even though mention is made of some possible things that could occur its presented in such a way as to be so unlikely to happen and if it did then you were one unlucky lady. Well the fact that I am having to undergo the procedure itself means Lady Luck hasn't been that forthcoming. So although I try to be low-key about it all as I wait to be called in I have a sinking feeling. 

They are running late. I am getting anxious as I have to get to London for that dinner date and the clock is ticking. After 15 minutes I am told that they are running 45 minutes behind but will do all they can do to try and make up time. I explain that I don't mean to be pushy but I am going out this evening and am now running late. Suddenly I see a get out clause. If it's a problem could we reschedule I say. They don't fall for it and to make me feel even more shallow for asking, they explain that the delay is due to a woman who is currently undergoing treatment and is having such awful side effects they need to see if any benefits have been gained by the treatment and if so whether this outweighs her side effects. She is feeling quite fragile so things are taking a bit longer. She wanted me to know and to apologise for delaying me. This suddenly puts it all into perspective. I am not here for a pedicure or a waxing treatment. I am here for a medical procedure for which life hangs in the balance. We are dealing with cancer and these guys do this on a day to day basis and need to work in conjunction with my team of experts. It's not a 'let's reschedule' situation. It's a here and now situation. They are not here to work around my social schedule. They are here to make sure that the process, which relies on accurate and up to date information, is feed this. I feel incredibly humbled and when I see the woman coming back into the waiting room I feel ashamed as for all her problems with the treatment she apologises for keeping me waiting in person and tries to reassure me that she's just an "awkward bugger" (her words not mine), and I shouldn't be phased by what is a straightforward and necessary procedure. She smiles at the staff saying that they are fantastic and make it all so less worrying. 

And she is right. The staff are lovely, very friendly, chatty and reassuring. They continue to apologise for the delay for which I assure them is really no problem at all. They say they will order me a taxi to get me to the station as soon as they know I will be near to finishing so that I can hot foot it up to my dinner date. They really are so kind. 

They talk me through what's going to happen all of which goes in one ear and out the other as what little concentration span I have left is diverted as they start to put a cannula into the back of my hand. Little did I know at this stage how this would become such a regular part of my life which I would come to dread but also feel reassured by. One of many oxymorons I have found din the world of cancer. 

I am told that the cannula will feed a blue dye into my body which is a contrasting dye to enhance the MRI scan images. There are a number of common reasons why this is given but in mine it is to look for cancer in other parts of my body as well as my breasts. Therefore a number of scans will be taken prior to the contrast dye injection and then a number after. I am told that I will be warned just before they do it. They say that in some cases you feel a cold rush through your blood stream followed by the feeling that you might have wet yourself. But it is just that - a feeling - so not to worry. 

The part of the machine which I go into looks bigger in diameter than I thought it would. It looks less claustrophobia-inducing than I imagined. I am starting to feel less anxious. The cannula insertion was ok and it doesn't feel uncomfortable or sore. The radiographers tell me that although the procedure is about 45 minutes in total it's split into two parts. Within those parts they will be taking a number of images that will last varying lengths and they will tell me when they will start and finish. One of the radiologists said that the first part when I am lying facing upwards is the shortest part and the part that one may be inclined to feel more claustrophobic during. Whereas the second part when you are face downwards is longer and less likely to cause any feelings of claustrophobia. Well I am feeling positively upbeat now though there is a fine line between euphoria and mania and I am definitely straddling both camps. 

Lastly they warn me that the machine is quite noisy so they put headphones on you in order to drown out the noise on which I have a choice of listening to either "cheesy pop or cheesy classic". What a choice! As I am about to make a decision on which might be the lesser of two evils I am offered a third option. One of the radiologists says, "I think we might have a bit of Adele if you fancy that?"  We'll at that point I knew of Adele but only really one song. Poor Adele she may have sold billions and be loved by millions, but I can now only equate her with MRIs and cancer which I know is highly unfair. But that's rule number one - never watch, listen or read anything that you could vaguely like in the future or indeed normally love in better times when you are having treatment or anything related to that treatment because you will never look at it in the same way again. It becomes associated with it. I read some great books but I could never re-read them. I watched some fun movies but couldn't re-watch them (thankfully a lot of rom-coms and lightweight stuff you wouldn't want to or need to see again) and some music I listened to which will always be forever associated with this moment in time and unfortunately Adele is one of those. 

As her dulcet tones started the machine was cranked up and the sound is something I can't even put into words now as its something quite unique. When trying to explain to friends what it is was like I couldn't even conjure up adjectives to describe it. All I could say was that MRIs should be used as a form of torture and that Jack Bauer in 24 was missing a trick. Forget waterboarding. Just put somebody into one of these machine and put some headphones on them in some vain attempt to drown out the sound with another sound that is bearly audible but annoyingly just out of reach or in reach (whatever way you wish to look at it). Mix that with the instructions to stay perfectly still or it will have to start all over again along with long enough bouts of no communication which is highly unnerving for someone who never stops talking at the best of times. On top of this you are in the most uncomfortable position ever with blue dye being pumped into your vains sending you into hot and cold spasms which in turn makes you are absolutely convinced you have pissed yourself and there my friend is your 21st century form of torture. 

Dramatic? Yes probably. Widely inaccurate? Well maybe a little but it wasn't pleasant. It wasn't dignified and it wasn't something I wanted to experience again. It was as they said only 45 minutes of my life, but it was 45 minutes too long. I think I should have prepared myself better with a bit of research and some coping mechanisms up my sleeve instead of playing it down. During the whole process I keep saying to myself that old adage "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger", but I couldn't honestly believe that. I had just undergone a procedure that was looking to see if there was something in there that could kill me. So the saying didn't quite work. I came out of that clinic feeling undoubtedly weaker and very dizzy. When the taxi driver dropped me at the station I literally stumbled onto the platform and nearly tumbled into the path of the train if it wasn't for the fact that someone helped break that fall. Not intentionally I am sure as I think in breaking my fall he must have nearly broken something himself, but he was very gallant and an absolute gentleman about it all. 

I got onto the train and read the piece of paper they gave me providing helpful and informative information following an MRI - signs to look out for and things to do to help minimise the effects. I read them all and probably had a number of them, but the only advice I saw and heeded was to keep hydrated. With perfect timing the buffet trolley made its way down the carriage and I heard myself ordering two gin and tonics. Well they said to keep hydrated and I had a least an hour's train journey. So what's a girl to do! Let's put it this way - I made sure I did as I was told and kept well and truly hydrated for the whole evening...

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