The week before scans is always scary. I notice myself becoming more agitated and irritable. I get impatient with my husband and daughter. I wake up several times a night and what little sleep I have is invaded by dreams of being abducted, abandoned or dispatched to the rubbish heap.
I begin to doubt everything I’m doing and nothing I’m already doing is enough. I should’ve taken more supplements, eaten more greens, done more detoxing, drunk more Chinese herbs, walked more, meditated more, oxygenated more. I shouldn’t be blogging and watching Grey’s Anatomy. I should be on the case all the time. Or else…
It’s nuts. And stressful. And unnecessary. And, most importantly, untrue. I am remarkably disciplined about my diet, treatments and protocols. I don’t just take the drugs I’ve been given. I consciously work at getting well every single day. I have taken this thing on with as much power and purpose as I can muster and, even then, I know I’m swimming upstream against the odds while praying for divine intervention.
But when my scans are due (every three months) I lose all perspective. I stop trusting how I feel and what I intuitively know about how I’m doing. I start treading water, waiting for the needles to enter my veins, the scanners to turn like giant polo mints round my body and the radiologist’s report to be passed to me by my consultant. Until then the future eludes me again.
Part of my anxiety is reminiscent of having my first scans done – several over three weeks – when each result dealt another devastating blow on top of the initial diagnosis I was still struggling to come to terms with. I am thrown back into those violent waters that sucked me under over and over as I scrambled to surface and desperately gasped for air.
That was when the pain began too. Prior to my scans I was almost pain free, which was why the extreme nature of my diagnosis was so shocking. But the day after my PET scan the tumour on my C3 vertebra announced its presence like a drunken gatecrasher with no regard for its host, eating into the bone and pressing on my spinal column until the slightest jarred movement or accidental trip on a pavement sent ripples of agony through my nerve endings.
Scans involve radiation (except MRIs) and radiation is carcinogenic. In my experience I always feel more pain after a scan, as if my tumours have had a quick fix of steroids and are flexing their muscles. Which is another reason to dread them.
I would prefer not to have them at all, but they are the only way to get a clear reality check on what is happening and there is nothing more empowering and freeing than Reality, even if the news if bad.
The mind is a trickster and a know-it-all, especially when it doesn’t actually know at all. In the absence of data it will simply fill in the gaps with beliefs, assumptions, projections, delusions, desires, fears, fantasies and fiction. One minute I am fearing the worst (tumour growth, cancer spread, game over) and the next I am imagining the best (remission, reprieve, game on). Neither of which are likely at this stage in my treatment, but I can’t help but go there in my head. The mind needs to be reined in on these occasions and brought to heel.
Reality releases you from the mind’s entrapment and assassinates denial (perhaps the most destructive psychological force in a situation like mine). It brings you verifiable clarity about what is so, which invokes a creative and viable response.
Hard as it is to face sometimes I want to know everything: the number of tumours, their exact location, their precise size down to the millimetre and the effects they can have on my body. I want details. The devil is not in the details. God is in the details. Truth is in the details. My next best move is in the details. The more details I can grasp the more power I have in my hands.
When first diagnosed I responded to my reality in two ways:
a) channel all my creative, psychological, intellectual and spiritual resources into getting well;
b) channel all my creative, psychological, intellectual and spiritual resources in preparing to die.
It was the greatest paradox I had ever found myself living, and continue to find myself living every day. I walk a gossamer line between determination and acceptance, taking charge and relinquishing control, the will to hold on and the willingness to let go.
I researched all the treatments I could find while rewriting my will and putting my affairs in order. I transformed my diet while setting up a video camera to record things for my daughter when I am no longer here. Advise about growing up, being a woman, falling in love, living her dreams and staying true to herself no matter what. Messages for special occasions like her 18th birthday and her wedding day. A way to bequeath her real, affirming reminders of how deeply her mother loved her and how very very hard it was for me to leave her behind. A thousand ways to remember me and a thousand more to remember herself.
These are ongoing actions and choices, moment by moment, scan by scan, result by result. My video camera for Gabriella has evolved into a little film set in my office so I can also record video diaries of my journey with cancer and create a YouTube channel that might help others who walk this paradoxical path.
I talked about this gossamer line at my first session with a possible new therapist last week, hoping he might help me walk it with more grace and less grief. He listened, as all good therapists do, and summed it up beautifully:
“Healing and recovery are action and intention held in the arms of surrender.”
Bring on the scans.
March me closer to Reality.