In The Scanner

There are three alphabets when put together make me uncomfortable, very uncomfortable. MRI.

First of all I must say that when someone knows that they don’t like MRIs , this fact itself suggests a pathetic state of affairs for it indicates surveillance, strict medical surveillance, waiting for the body to do something forbidden, something illegal, and the tests trying to one up the cancer with modern technology.
I had my fourth MRI today. The reason for this exam is the “post-chem leg-weirdness.” It has been decided that an MRI of the knee may rule out anything serious. Not sure how, since breast cancer, if it metastasizes to the bone, will be better seen on a bone scan and not on an MRI, which sees soft tissue better. But having the “c” word attached to your medical chart, earns you a life time of investigations, of “why don’t we”, “let’s make sure”, and “it won’t hurt to do” type of medical thinking.

It’s a body that now has a mind of its own and could very well be quietly mounting a mutiny within. This body can’t be fully trusted. No amount of investigations can restore this trust. It is true for trust in general. Once broken, leaves us with a life time of apprehension and unnecessary hesitation that makes life more tedious than it needs to be. In the case of cancer, the betrayal is combated by vigilance. “Lets make sure” it is just arthritis in your knee. Very well, but the X-ray failed to confirm the arthritis or the alleged baker’s cyst that may be causing the calf to ache. “Why don’t we” do a vascular US( ultra sound), to make sure there aren’t any clots. Well there weren’t and “it wouldn’t hurt” to do a non-vascular US also.

None of the above investigation were able to determine why the leg hurts. The radiologist, after reporting a normal knee, throws in an MRI to confirm or rule out further causes. Yikes! there it is….MRI. I have always wondered if people who grow up in religious traditions that don’t involve the grave fare better on an MRI.  In my case, the first thought in my mind is being laid in a casket. Lying down is an extremely vulnerable position. Even more son in a narrow, tight space. Especially when needing to be very still – it’s excruciating.

I hate MRIs. In a whole year of cancer and cancer treatments, the only time I broke down and cried in the hospital was after my first breast MRI. Lying face down in a scanner with the breasts hanging through two openings in the table and then sliding into the scanner in a cold room alone, still freshly traumatized from cancer diagnosis, was more than I could handle. I knew I needed to do it, but how I asked myself. Here it’s me, alone, without any distractions, just me and my thoughts alone, in a tube.
The second time, it was MRI with biopsy, which necessitated the presence of medical personnel in the room, and hence was less disturbing. A little dose of Xanax proved magical as well.

Today, it was back in the scanner. They always ask you before an MRI, “Are you claustrophobic?” I don’t think you can decide whether you are claustrophobic or not until you actually have been inside an MRI scanner. I apparently was, and the diagnosis of claustrophobia was confirmed during my first scan. I have been in elevators and small room and closets, but lying down in a tube is whole different story. I felt that I could not breathe, that when I am supposed to be still even my diaphragm stops to move and goes stiff. That day I gasped and I sighed, and then tears started to roll down my checks. I tried hard not to move although I felt like crying, crying in a way that sets my whole existence in motion but I couldn’t.

The liver MRI happened under the most stressful circumstances. The day before I had been told, “There is a spot on the liver on the CT. You need an MRI of the liver”. That day I was broken from the inside. Death appeared more real than ever in my life, the words “Stage 4” danced in my head. The technician doing this scan was a cheerful middle-aged male who would periodically shout through the mic, “Breathe, Breathe and Hold.”  I tried hard to breathe. If i close my eyes today I can still hear him say, “Breathe, Breathe and Hold.” Holding my breath, I would wonder what being dead meant. Do you feel anything? Do you even know you are dead, or in a grave? Do you see the zipper of the body bag being closed over you? Being still is depressing. It’s just one step away from being dead. Being human is the ability to walk and move and make noises and make funny faces. Lying still in a closed space is much too much of an expectation from an undead person. A person who wants to live, move, run…all of it. MRI are not natural, they just aren’t human.

So today, as the table gradually moved into the scanner, and the technician said, “I am leaving”, I panicked. A flood of emotions seemed to be approaching me much like the cold, off-white surface of the scanner as all of my body went into the slim tube. It felt like I would never leave this thing, that it would close in on me, or grab me hungrily to keep it company. My brain told me I was safe but the tightness of the space fought that thought, and rendered it completely impotent.

I pressed the control for the technician to come back, who was kind and understanding. She recommended I close my eyes when I move inside the scanner. She made some conversation to put me at ease and then asked if we could start again. The table started to move in the scanner. I had my eyes tightly closed. I could hear the tapping sound of the machine, but I was making my mind imagine things. Nothing was working. I started to pray. It helped but then the machine started to scan with loud noises of deafening intensity. Think, think, think, happy images. I managed to summon the image of my daughter making up a story about losing her tooth even though she is too young to, and the dramatic description that went along with it.  It helped a little. I pictured my son smiling as the sound of the knocking and hammering intensified.
I then started to attach visions to the sounds, I imagine a Russian man with a loud voice saying “da da da” as the machine-made similar noises, then I imagined another man who could say ” tha tha tha” in a language that word might belong to. I imagined them fighting each other, each getting louder.

MRI machine goes in bursts. Once it starts to scan there are periods of about 5 minutes when you have to be still and bear the excruciating noises.
I imagined being seated in the tail of an airplane where you can hear the engine, I imagined an embroidery machine with its needle swiftly moving back and forth and making a noise. I finally imagined a story of the noises and started to time how long the Russian guy yells and how long the needle moves for.
It’s amazing how much a person can think about in 30 minutes. It can be a journey from life to death and back to life. A state of lying still alone, unhindered, quiet and alone. Shallow breaths, gasps and sigh. Aware of breathing at times but unsure if the air is actually going through the lungs. May be the air doesn’t circulate in the scanner, or does it?

The stillness of the whole room is penetrated by outside air as the technician walks in to confirm it’s over. I get up and enjoy being able to sit in an open space. The breathing is still shallow, uncertain, just like the uncertain future of a cancer survivor.

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One thought on “In The Scanner

  1. Oh boy, I’m really sorry you have such trouble with the MRIs. For me, the worst was a core needle biopsy done w/ultrasound. It was the only procedure other than my actual initial first diagnosis that brought me to tears. And they were those horrible snorgy, wailing, hands over my eyes, losing my breath kind of tears. I just found your blog on twitter and am glad to have found a kindred left breast cancer blogging friend. Sorry we had to meet this way, but glad I found you. best, Claudia

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