Excerpt from an email in which I notified a friend of the situation, this day last year:
problem. i don’t really want to tell all of ya’ll cause word will get around and everyone will be worried, etc. (it’s no secret though. friends will want to know, but if people have to hear i’d rather it not be in a heart to heart form me cause frankly i am tired of those.) ok, you’re not going to believe this, and there’s no way i can say this non-dramatically, but the doctors are pretty sure i have breast cancer. i know, crazy right? so, i don’t get a biopsy until friday, so there is always room for doubt. but i guess they are as sure as they can be without having the test results in front of them yet. meanwhile, they’ve already started with all the big tests. i had a bone scan yesterday. coming up besides the biopsy is a liver sonogram, some lung test, an MRI and some lymph node scan. and i am sure you’re guess is the same as mine that in socialized systems they don’t order tests that aren’t necessary “just in case”. the GOOD and MOST IMPORTANT news in this is that they also don’t think it has spread anywhere. again, without yet having confirmation of all the tests in front of them, this is so far considered something that has been caught early and is thus localized. i’ll have to get the thing cut out (like i have any to spare. if you think i’m going to let them take half of what i got and not replace it with an upgrade–be it a slight one-you’re crazy!) and then get follow up radiation. (radiation is not the same as chemo. it’s just sitting under a machine pointed at my boob, that doesn’t actually touch me, for some time each day for so many weeks…)
About now I was getting an education in medical testing. First was that “blood scan” = standard blood tests (at least in terms of what I see as the patient). Then I had:
Liver sonogram = A sonogram like any other. I lie down, get covered with goo over my torso. The lab technicians look at it as a grainy image on the 70’s era TV screen. Quick and painless.
Bone Scan = [Using another email excerpt] today turned out to be the bone scan. (i can’t keep up with all these tests and appointments!). so they put a shot of blue radioactive stuff in my arm. quick and only an injection prick. then i was free for 3 hours to do what i wanted and told only to be sure and drink lots.
so i had lunch (quite a tasty and cheap cafeteria) and did some other work that i had cleverly brought with me and needed to do. (family is advised to do the same when they come.) then i went back, laid down on a big machine for about 10 minutes while a square thing on a metal arm, measuring about 2×2, moved over me from head to toe. then i left again for a few minutes and listened to the current pop music pumping softly into the waiting rooms. then i went back in the room and laid on the machine for about another half hour while the 2×2 square thing moved over me again, this time concentrating over my torso. it rotated slowly around, making lots of mechanical movement sounds. that’s it. it was quick and painless. just a little time consuming. mostly in the travel back and forth to the hospital from brussels. i just laid there and closed my eyes and pretended i was just taking a little cat nap. then it was done.
lung x-ray= pretty self explanatory
MRI = This is the noisy test. I undressed from the waist up and took off all my jewelry. I was laid face down on the machine’s table with my breasts placed into a breast mold fitted onto the top end of the table, in between it and a special head rest. Again they put a shot of something in the soft part of the elbow and give me clunky headphones with music in them to distract me from the noise of the machine (it no where near covers it up). A black soft rubber squeezy thing is placed in my other hand, which I am to squeeze if there is some urgent need to stop the test. The technicians leave the room and the table slides part way into the metal tube of the machine. Then it clanks away for about 15 minutes, sounding like an old robot who’s time to be retired has come. All in all it is loud but completely painless. I recommend closing your eyes and imagining you are taking a rest like i mention above (noise aside). If you can’t see that your head is in an enclosed space, you don’t know it. Then you’re done. You get out, get the needle out of your arm, put your clothes and jewelry on and go home.
There’s another test – I have no idea what it’s called – that I have done several times. In this one I lie with my head just inside a big metal doughnut-shaped ring, face up. Looking at the inside of the ring there is a gap of just several inches where there is clear plastic/glass instead of metal and I can see the inside of the “doughnut”. Inside, metal parts that start to spin around the inside of the doughnut very quickly. I’d say this is a sort of MRI, but it is not noisy at all. Don’t know what it was, but it didn’t hurt and only lasts about 10 minutes.
Biopsy – Of course, who could forget the biopsy? This finally came a week or so after the tentative diagnosis and this time I didn’t get that sick feeling. I had gone to all my other tests alone, but as far as the biopsy’s concerned, my tough-girl act was gone. I really wanted company and my dear sister Rachael had come over during the weekend. We’d spent a great couple of days together (doing the occasional cool things you get to do in Brussels, such as go to a party at the home of the Israeli Ambassador!) and she understood that I was getting quite apprehensive about the biopsy, not because of what it would say. We knew that. Simply because it was going to be intrusive and I didn’t want to hurt.
It really wasn’t so bad. Rachael stayed while they first sonogramed my lymph nodes. I noticed that they seemed particularly interested in one, which the measured and photographed, but I let it go. When Needle-Time came, they said my sister could stay if I “really really need[ed] her” in the room, so Tough-Girl I let her go. I had to lie in quite an awkward position on the table, on my left side, but with my shoulders flat on the table. The monitor was on my right side so I really had to twist to see what was on it as I was invited to do. They pointed out the tumor on the screen. They then got the biopsy “gun” which was basically a needle the size of the plastic ink reserve inside a ball point pen, attached to a fat handle which made it like a wand. Two technicians used the monitor to guide them as they put the needle into the tumor (they had locally anesthetized the area, which hurt the most really). They would get it in place, tell me to hold my breath and then squeeze the trigger so that the needle would cut a sample. The noise was like that of an ear-piercing gun. It’s not bad but I fought not to jump. It feels pretty serious to have an ear-piercing gun jolting inside you. Mentally, not physically, I mean. Physically, you can feel what they are doing, but it is only a vague sensation. The jerk and noise of the needle is the worst.
I stopped looking at the monitor as they slid in the needle and snipped the sample. It was just too much information (besides the fact that I didn’t like the human contortionist aspect of it). Just like with regular needles, I am fine if I don’t see what you’re doing. If I see it, I will tense up and then it hurts worse. They took three or four samples. By the last one, I really didn’t want anymore. When they were done, they stuck on a bandage and OTC painkillers. I did take the aspirin, but the after pain was not bad at all. For a couple of days I merely left like I had a bit of a deep bruise there. No sweat.
So, if you find yourself about to become a BC lab rat like I did, you have some idea of what’s coming. (If you ever want to feel “lucky” in cancer, talk to someone who’s had lymphoma. They get really nasty tests!) Anyway, whatever’s about to come your way, I promise the testing’s not so bad.