Barbara Tako is a breast cancer survivor (2010), melanoma survivor (2014) and author of Cancer Survivorship Coping Tools—We'll Get You Through This. She is a cancer coping advocate, speaker and published writer for television, radio and other venues across the country. She lives, survives, and thrives in Minnesota with her husband, children and dog. See more at www.cancersurvivorshipcopingtools.com,or www.clutterclearingchoices.com.
Over five years out from breast cancer and over a year from melanoma, I still stress out about scans, tests and mammograms.
Funny how a little thing like a scan still throws me for a loop. After all, I have survived breast cancer and melanoma including surgeries, chemotherapy, radiation, follow-up tests — the whole deal. What’s a little scan at this point after everything else?
Why a scan? It was still the darn fatigue that led me to the scan. The blood tests had all been done. The sleep study resulted in a CPAP but no noticeable relief from the fatigue. What next? My oncologist suggested I consider a PET scan, though she cautioned that insurance might not help pay for it. Really?
I didn’t delay in letting the oncologist schedule the PET scan. My need to know outweighed my need to be sure it would be paid for. I am the kind of cancer patient who dreads tests and procedures. I question the wisdom of going looking for stuff I really don’t want to find. I worry about false positives. I dread accurate positives. Despite that, I want answers. I want to cross off one worry from the nagging worry list. Fatigue is one thing, and I will deal with it if I need to, but the idea of ignoring a long-term symptom that could mean the return of cancer — that, I cannot do. Does that make any sense?
Of course, the start of the holidays pushed the scheduling of the PET scan back. Once I had decided to do it, I hoped for sooner rather than later. I know myself. I “pre-worry” — that's a term a good friend of mine uses to describe herself. The PET scan schedule was crowded the week after Thanksgiving. It was a busy time for them.
To me, the process just felt kind of grim. At the hospital where I had the scan, I discovered they do it from a truck that pulls behind the building. I hadn’t known that. One second I was in a warm hospital waiting room and the next I was walking outside with my guide over to a truck. It was a bit cramped but definitely functional.
Have you had this procedure? There was a day and a half of careful low-carb eating (and ultimately fasting) followed by a prick to check blood sugar, a few questions, an IV in my “good” arm to administer the radioactive material, and a ghastly chalky beverage to drink — half right away and then half after a 45-minute wait just before the scan. The machine reminded me of being in an MRI. The actual test took about forty minutes of lying perfectly still.
The test was on a Thursday. A wiser woman than I had told me once that she always schedules her mammograms early in the week. This way, she usually doesn’t put herself in the position of having to wait and worry over a weekend. Good strategy.
The young male technician had told me that my results “probably wouldn’t be read by a radiologist until the next day,” which was a Friday. The female technician told me when I stood up after the procedure that they would “push the results” to the radiologist that day, but that I might not hear anything until Monday if I didn’t already have a doctor appointment scheduled for Friday — which I didn’t. “Push” the results — hmm, why do we need to “push?” I don’t like the sound of that, but I know the technicians won’t tell me anything. Do they even realize that the way they word things can create fears in patients?
I was a big girl. I had driven myself to my appointment. I didn’t feel like a big girl as I walked to my car and I had an uneasy drive home in the dark. Oh, glorious winter. I was trying very hard to be calm and patient. I won’t lie and tell you that the gin and tonic didn’t help. It felt like it would be a long weekend though. I just decided right away that I would try to call the oncologist’s office the next afternoon. So much for patience. If I can do something to put myself out of my misery, I will. If I can’t, then I promise myself that I will work on calmness and patience.
I wake up Friday and snuggle one of my dogs. I pray. I remind myself to breathe. All helps, yet I still sort of walk around feeling a bit like quietly throwing up. I get to practice waiting. I can see I still have a lot of work to do on that whole patience thing. I try distraction.
While sitting at a restaurant with my mom later, I notice an e-mail with a link to a test result from my provider. Negative — no cancer found. Feeling like I dodged a bullet, it is hard to immediately relax, but I am extremely relieved and grateful. I know I need to work on myself. I also know I will worry again the next time I have a follow-up scan or mammogram or other test. What helps you cope with scan worries?