Exhaustion, Anxiety, Joy, and My Latest CAT Scan

On Wednesday the 21st, I went to the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, MD for my quarterly CAT scan. I’m part of an experimental protocol for Large B Cell lymphoma. Through the Grace and God and the brilliance of my physicians, they cured me of the monster in the first half of 2009. In fact, I didn’t even have any discernible cancer after the second chemo treatment although I went through four more sessions of chemo because that’s the protocol and because they wanted to make sure they killed the “microscopic bits.” At the end of those sessions, although I was cured, I looked like I was about to die.

Because I am part of a clinical trial, I have been scanned more than a bag of groceries in a supermarket. The CAT scan yesterday (I’m writing this on 22 Oct) was probably the 10th one in a row that was clear. My physicians tell me I worry too much before I get these scans and that it would be highly unusual for the cancer to return especially in my case since they caught it early and I responded immediately to the medications. But they don’t have to do it. No matter what I do, I become something of a basket case before I get the scan. I usually can’t sleep the night before. I have to get up at 6:00 am (which is very early for me) so I can get there on time because one has a place in the queue as the Brits say and one doesn’t want to get pushed back and stay there all day.

The first thing I do is get my blood drawn and they always take a lot. Three test tubes. I don’t know why. Then I go to CAT scan reception, sign in, and have my choice of radioactive beverages: banana, berry or, and this is new in the last six months, mocha. Radiation comes in flavors. Mocha is the best. I drink that over a one hour period. The people who work at the NCI are extraordinarily nice and I always take time to tell every single person I come in contact with that they saved my life and I am incredibly grateful to them – which I truly am. I just don’t want to be there.

Then I have to go and get these strange blue garments made of paper, go into the bathroom, disrobe, and put on these weird paper pajamas. Then I wait. Then they stick a needle in my arm and give me something. Then they stick me in the CAT scan machine. I’m so tall that when the bed of the machine moves while I am getting scanned, my feet touch the wall. After one pass, they stick you with someone else – “this will give you a warm, tingling feeling.” I can certainly use that. Then another pass and I’m done. I go up to the 12th floor and wait. And it’s then that I sometimes want to die and get it over with because the stress is so intense I never sit down. I usually pace back and forth across the waiting room which certainly is calming for the other people.

Then I get whisked into an examination room, they take my vitals, thump on me a little bit, ask me questions then I wait for my attending physician since he is the one who looks at everything. He’s a brilliant young guy, Kieron, and he’s Irish. This is the key moment since if the cancer has returned then it would be Kieron who would tell me. When he comes in I’m happy to see him because the process will soon be over and I want to throw up at the same time. Everything is fine he says. CAT scan completely clear. I worry too much he says. Easy for him to say but I always feel a huge relief and a sense of joy once more that I am alive.

I always thank Kieron for saving my life and tell him and his associates how grateful I am and believe me, I am. I told them yesterday that in some ways it’s like having a new life and it’s because of them. And truthfully, even though I’ve been through a lot of rough weather in my life, having cancer has put things in perspective. I rarely get bothered by little things. I got stuck in line for 30 minutes at the grocery store the other day and was sort of pissed and then I realized that I’m alive and healthy and it’s great to be alive and healthy and stuck in the line at the grocery store.

I came home and slept for almost 18 hours with a few breaks. That’s the emotional toll. And thousands of people go through this every day. I’m going to walk to the grocery now. It’s sort of cold outside. But I don’t care. I’ll bundle up and be happy and pleased and joyful that I can walk to the grocery in the cold weather since there are hundreds of people in the hospital at the National Cancer Institute who would give anything to do that.

[Image courtesy of the NCI.]

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Charles McCain

Charles McCain is a Washington DC based freelance journalist and novelist. He is the author of "An Honorable German," a World War Two naval epic. You can read more of his work on his website: http://charlesmccain.com/

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