Almost ten years have passed since my initial diagnosis of “infiltrating ductal carcinoma.” So far, I have survived both my breast cancer and my texting while driving. But please don’t refer to me as a “survivor.” That would imply that I had something to do with my, up till now, favorable outcome. It would also imply that my less fortunate cancer sisters  “failed.” I did not fight my cancer valiantly. I was neither strong nor brave. I squirmed, fidgeted, and freaked out every step of the way.

When it comes to cancer, I do not believe in mind over matter. I don’t think you can stop your cancer cells from spreading any more than you can will yourself to fly or learn Mandarin in your sleep.  I accept that I have been incredibly lucky, so far. I am mindful that others have not been as lucky.

I discovered my tumor fairly early. I did not procrastinate too long before I did something about it, a couple of months at the most. My cells were not of the most aggressive kind. I was hormone positive. I escaped both full mastectomy and chemotherapy. I tolerated my aromatase inhibitors well. (In fact, on me the hormone suppressors worked like phen phen. I effortlessly lost some weight, instead of packing on the pounds like many middle-aged women sometimes do.)  I had access to a first rate cancer center. I had a good health insurance. Even so, my cancer “episode” cost me more than $17,000 out of pocket. Most importantly, I was already post-menopausal. I was not robbed of my fertility and my youth.

I have been left with only two external scars: one hairline crack in the twelve o’clock position on my right breast. (Good job, Dr. Guru!) And I have a tattoo that looks like a stabbed myself with a ballpoint pen between my breasts. My internal scars are beginning to fade also. I no longer assume that a headache means that I have brain metastasis. Now when something rattles under my hood, I am back to thinking it is “nothing” rather than “something.”

The Sophists say that “Life is a dream and death is waking up.”  Admittedly, nothing gets your full attention like a possible death sentence. At first,  it puts your mind in a freeze frame mode, then it sharpens your senses and helps you get your priorities straight.

At least for a while.

 

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First, a technician draws a vial of my blood, then he injects me with a sugar solution mixed with a mildly radioactive material. “Nothing dangerous,” he tells me. The PET scan works differently than the CRT or the MRI in that it looks at the mitotic activity (cell division) rather than at a particular organ. Cancer cells grow and divide more rapidly than normal cells and therefore need more energy – glucose (sugar) – than non-cancer cells. Somehow any cancer cells feasting in one of my organs will, with the help of the radioactive sugar solution, produce a sharper image than my regular cells.

After the injection, I have to sit in a lazy boy in a dark, quiet room for 45 minutes. I cannot even listen to music or read. The only activity allowed is relaxation and this is something I am bad at, especially in the middle of a regular work day.

Fidgety and a bit restless, but not anxious, I pull out my Blackberry. I check earlier phone messages and emails, then with no cell phone reception in the room, I am left with nothing else to do. I start to play Break the Brick Wall. I suck at it. Every game is over before I can get to the second screen. Try again! my Blackberry urges me. I read the instructions and start getting better when I realize my heart is pounding, my adrenaline pumping. I am hardly in the relaxed stage prescribed. What if I screw up the whole test? Reluctantly, I stuff the Blackberry back into my purse and close my eyes and try to force myself to relax.

The scan itself takes about half an hour. It is surprisingly easy to lie completely still as the bed slides back and forth through the Do-nut hole creating 3D images of possible cancer in the granuloma in my lung or in the lymph node under my heart. “We will send this to your doctor,” I am told, “but it takes 24 hours before he gets it. “Would you also please give it to Dr. Alpha I tell the tech. “Well, all our doctors have access to these. Does he expect it? Yes. Then he will have it an hour after it is done. That is how long it takes to transfer it via the net.”

So an hour after my scan is done, Dr. Alpha will know if I have metastatic cancer or not. If I do, how will he manage to tell me?


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Do I Really Need a PET Scan?

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Something in Dr. R’s message does not add up. First I have an old pneumonia scar. Then it is radiation damage on the left lung lobe. But I had my right side radiated.  If anyone could solve this mystery, it would be my radiation oncologist, Dr. Alpha. I call Dr. Alpha’s number, fully expecting to […]

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Ever Heard of a P-E-T Scan?

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My cell phone rings at 7.42 AM. I am already at work. “Just left you a message at home,” my internist says. “Ignore that one. Just want to tell you the CAT scan was inconclusive. It is nothing to worry about,” he said.” But one should also not ignore it. You understand what I mean? […]

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CAT Scan Ordered to Check My Lungs

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New Breast Cancer Vaccine

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After my farewell to the radiation oncology department, I take the elevator up to the lobby and meander through the hospital complex to meet with Dr. Weary, my oncologist. (My heart feels heavy because Dr. Alpha is no longer my guardian angel and in my purse I have reams of computer print outs about the […]

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Cost of Radiation Oncology

April 25, 2010

When do you buy a car without inquiring about cost? Probably never. Chances are you carefully research different brands of cars, repair records, gas mileage, safety records, dealer cost (so you know how low you can negotiate)  or you read used car ads for a good deal until your eyes bleed. When it comes to […]

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Farewell to Radiation Oncology

April 23, 2010

“Dr. Weary, my oncologist, called me yesterday,” I tell Dr. Alpha, on my last day of radiation. “Please note that yesterday was Sunday.” Dr. Alpha nods, waits to hear what I have to say. I tell him how sad and disturbed Dr. Weary seemed when I nixed chemo. I admitted to Dr. Alpha that the […]

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“Probaly Nothing” Was Breast Cancer!

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Whatever it was that showed up on my friend Elise’s mammogram, it needed a biopsy. A different doctor might have said “Let’s wait and see. Come back in six months.” But not Dr. Guru, he claimed that a biopsy was “the medically prudent thing to do.” So Elise went ahead and had her biopsy “just […]

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