I am sitting in the waiting room of the hospital’s CT Scan facility. The furniture is classic office lobby chic. The walls are papered with a soft green fern pattern. The floors are oak instead of the sterile, polished tile found in other sections of the hospital.
The decor is designed to help the rest of the patients and me feel calm, less worried. I feel like I’m surrounded by death-in-waiting.
I look around at the pleasant hues and warm wood. The attending staff are all bright, as if buoyed by superficial optimism. I am certain It is part of their job description. Portray pleasantness and cheer. Then there are the cancer patients, some so unable to walk they have been pushed here on hospital-issued wheelchairs. Some have oxygen tanks on the back, and tubes run up to their noses.
I feel like I’m surrounded by death-in-waiting. I see sad people staving off the inevitable.
I see sad people staving off the inevitable. Each of us is waiting our turn to lie in the confines of the CT scanner. Soon will be my turn to stretch out and slide in and out of the plastic, humming white ring as it shoots its rays through my body. A computerized voice will soon tell me “Hold your breath” and then “Breathe.” My mission is unequivocal: Will the picture the radiologist sees to be clear. I want not a single blemish to show up. Just normal, healthy organs.
This is my first visit in a year. It is number five since my left kidney was removed in June 2011. Each of the previous scans has been devoid of any cancer cells that so ungraciously took host on top of my kidney before. I haven’t felt more healthy, more vigorous. Things are going my way. Yet, as I wait, I think a visit here is an automatic way to erase all the good I have worked so hard to build. I am not supposed to be here, part of this group of sickly, older people whose time is quickly falling away. Still, here I am. We have more in common than I care to admit.
This is a room of “what if?”
This is a room of “what if?”
I shudder from drinking two large styrofoam cups filled with ice water and the contrast that will be activated by the CT scanner’s radio waves. The cold comes from the inside out and adds to my nervousness. Everything rides on what happens at 10:40 am with my scan.
Clear and the sky is blue again. Life is good. But a tiny spot? Everything changes.
What if? What if they find something today that wasn’t there a year ago? What if cancer comes back? What if this tightness in my chest is not nerves but the malignancy of a new batch of cancer? What if all my efforts to change my internal dialogue from hugely negative to healthy has been for naught? What if my diet and exercise hasn’t done shit to prevent cancer coming back?
I am faced with these gigantic and unanswerable life questions in a barrage as I sit with these other cancer patients. I can’t tell if my new co-CT scanner colleagues are yet cancer survivors like me or are still in battle. Are they scared or have they accepted their states? Are they getting better or are their fights with this pervasive disease going not so well?
What if this is the beginning of the end for me? What if my life is reaching its end point? What if I have to accept that I won’t live the 30 or 40 years more I have planned for?
I am told to take my necklace off. My hands shake and it’s hard to unhook.
Soon my turn. I am led to the back by a pleasant CT tech named Meagan. She directs me to a dressing room where I change into patient scrubs. I am told to take my necklace off. My hands shake and it’s hard to unhook.
“Can I help you with that?,” Meagan asks. But I push her off.
I lie on the sled and the tech begins prepping me. She swabs alcohol on my left arm where she’s pinpointed a target vein. I feel the bite as the needle for the IV is inserted. The IV will carry the rest of the contrast so the CT can pick up cancer cells with its x-rays.
The contrast is like a warm river flowing through my veins. I feel like I’m going to pee myself.
The tech leaves for her control room and instructs me to raise my arms as the machine whirs. I close my eyes. I will my body to be clear. The contrast is like a warm river flowing through my veins. First in my arm. Then it quickly spreads through my chest, abdomen and pelvis. I feel like I’m going to pee myself and my tongue feels metallic. The sled and I slide in and out of the CT a few times. “Hold your breath,” the robotic voice tells me. My worry has been replaced by calm. My breath is even. I have done all I can, I think. There is nothing more to do.
It is over. Three minutes is all it took. The tech pulls the IV and gives me a small bottle of water. Drink, she says. Drink a lot. I get dressed again. My legs are wobbly. My mouth is dry despite guzzling the water.
I walk back out through the waiting area. The same sad faces. The same miserable people drinking their “berry contrast shakes”. They wait their chance on the answer machine–the CT Scanner. Outside the air is warming. The first real spring day in a while, I think.
I drive to Trader Joe’s for groceries and more water. All this tension has made me hungry and insatiably thirsty. Shopping slowly brings me back: this is what normal feels like. No cancer here. Just vegetables, fruit, pizza dough, coffee. Free samples.
A little later I am sitting in the Trader Joe’s parking lot drinking water and gobbling trail mix. My phone rings and it’s my doctor. He says: “We so often have to deliver bad news. I wanted to deliver something good for once. Your CT was completely clear.”
My heart rushes. I text my wife: “Doc called. COMPLETELY CLEAR CT.”
There is the other side of What if? and it is just as likely, if not more likely, than cancer. Life unfolds with all of its possibilities again.
What if? I realize there is the other side of What if? and it is just as likely, if not more likely, than cancer. What if my scan is free of cancer? These moments are like a new lease. Life unfolds with all of its possibilities again. This is worth celebrating. This is worth living.
My fears, trepidation and worry have not been answered. Instead, news that I am healthy. Validation of the life I now lead. My head is good.