Meltdown in the MRI: Don't Do What I Did


Routine checkups can rattle us with technology and subconscious fears that tiptoe to the surface, even five years out. Perhaps going alone to important screenings is not the best idea. Taking a friend if you do not have a partner, even if you can do it all alone, is never a bad idea.

Just when I thought I was sailing through another round of routine tests the week before an oncology checkup, I had a meltdown getting an MRI. It surprised me to feel so deeply. Before this crying jag, I had been experiencing a stress-free anniversary of the cancer diagnosis. What was up with me?

I am not claustrophobic. Some magnetic resonance machines, in fact, are open-ended. You lie down on clean sheets and go into a donut hole. While one arm may have an IV into which dye flows for a contrast image, a hand clutches a plastic alarm (just in case). Cordless headphones cradle your head.

Although you can stop the test at any time by squeezing the plastic bulb, I did not sound an alarm as tears started to flow. I just tried not to shake too much as Soundscape satellite radio resonated in my ears. Punctuated by the beats of the machine, this ethereal music coaxed out even more tears. Floodgates that I thought I had closed opened wide.

The shower is a better place to cry. That is where I did much of my crying during the days after my mastectomy. Sometimes I sat in a tub of water and sobbed. Other times, though, if I let my defenses down, I would cry in front of a loved one and let myself be consoled. That is the best place to cry, with friends and family members instead of a machine or tub holding you.

I questioned the tears as they flowed during the MRI, thinking of how I had relinquished worries of relapse or further metastases. Heedless, tears dropped like hail. As I lay there listening to a sweet flute, a random statistic floated through my head. How many people with my initial diagnosis make it five years without a relapse or recurrence? I know that figure by heart.

Alone with my thoughts, still controlling my trembling, I began to wonder if perhaps these tears had nothing to do with the cancer or fears related to my future. Perhaps I simply felt unanchored or alone. Just before climbing on the platform to be lifted into the MRI scanner, I had been sitting in a waiting room, connected, working on a laptop.

I love to work, which in my case is teaching. Along with helping students to learn more about writing, language and the tradition of the haiku and other literature, I go to work because it is good to get out of the house and think about something other than myself or cancer. If I did not detach on weekends to hike and rest and clean house, people might mistake me for a workaholic.

Notice how I just changed the subject. I went from admitting that I might feel alone to talking about work. The truth is that there is a void in my life that I tiptoe around, one related to yet another statistic that hypothesizes that single women will have worse prognoses. This statistic provided another thought that also came to mind as I lay there in the machine, music pulling worry after worry out of my subconscious mind.

When I completed the test, I knew, I would get back to work. I would forget that nobody had been sitting in the waiting room to pat me on the back after the test. In the meantime, though, I endured another electromagnetic scan, thinking about statistics and flutes and how a noise can sound like the finest music or a death chant. Next year, I vow, I will not go to this appointment alone.

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