Fans of the old Seinfeld TV comedy may or may not recall an episode in which the character George Costanza is waiting for the results of a biopsy. When he gets the call that the results are “negative,” he becomes hysterical, thinking he’s doomed – until it is explained to him that “negative” is the best news possible.
Last week I had my annual post-treatment MRI, and I also did a double-take when the nurse told me the results were “negative.” That means “good,” right? Yes, she emphasized. No news is good news.
Friends and acquaintances get tired of hearing about the ongoing appointments, tests, drug dosages and occasional health scares that are part of being a so-called survivor of cancer. It is never really over.
Some people have their post-traumatic anxiety triggered around anniversaries they recall consciously or not: day of diagnosis, day of surgery, day when chemo began. For me, the post-traumatic stress starts building slowly in the weeks leading up to my annual MRI and my annual mammogram. That means that twice a year, at least, I go into a state of anxiety pending the results of these tests.
The doctors and nurses and everyone else I see for health care tell me this is quite normal. It even has a name: scanxiety. It’s perplexing. Physically, I feel better than I have in decades, whereas for about a year before I had my diagnosis, I felt really awful. So, if I feel fabulous, how could I possibly have cancer, again? The rational part of my mind tells me it is unlikely. The survival-oriented reptilian part of my brain tells me it is quite possible. Fear and anxiety are, I believe, natural states that allowed our and other species to evolve: if you’re not at least occasionally looking over your shoulder, something might get you.
And yet, the experience of having low grade anxiety for even a week or two a year is a real nuisance. I put things on hold, don’t make plans because: what it? what if?
It does seem to be getting a little better each year. I’ve also got a few coping mechanisms.
One is to have someone go with me to a test or hand out afterward. Bonnie went with me to my last mammogram and would have been there had the immediately announced test results not been “negative.”
An MRI is a much more jarring experience. I prefer to drive to the appointment myself. I take no drugs to get through it.
There’s about an hour’s worth of prep time and waiting before it starts. They insert an IV into my wrist because at the end of the test, they inject a dye into my veins that lights up while I’m in the machine.
Being in an MRI machine, which goes on for 30-40 minutes, is its own unique travail. I’ve got severe claustrophobia. I take out my contacts and don’t wear glasses so that when I enter the room, the machine just looks like a big, white blur. The technicians lead me up a few stairs on the side of the machine, and I kind of plop down onto some kind of table, which I can’t see, which is all padded in various places, as I’ll be lying face down. It’s a bit like lying down on a massage table, though I can’t kid myself. They give me ear plugs and ear muffs to muffle the horrendous sounds made by the machine. Then while I can’t see anything and have my face buried in the terry cloth padded face cup, they flip a switch, and my body is moved into the machine feet first.
Here’s where having a long meditation background really comes in handy. I focus entirely on the breath and within a few seconds, at will, I go into a still, silent state. I am not asleep but I also do little thinking. I use the bizarre MRI sounds as a meditation object. My breathing gets shallower and shallower. I go into a bit of a trance state for the duration. The technicians say they’re amazed at how still I remain while in the machine.
I am a bit spaced out afterward and need to go do something to unwind and try not to think about the pending results.
Last year, I went and had lunch with some old friends in Berkeley, and that kind of settled me down before I then had to wait two days for test results. This year, I contacted the same friends and asked if they would babysit me again. Their response was to not even return my phone call and email.
That’s interesting and useful information, something else to let go of. I won’t ask them again. I have gotten used to people dropping off and out of my life.
Fortunately, my beloved friend R was more than happy to have me hang out with him for a couple of hours after the MRI. Then, even more fortunately, by the time I got home, the test results were already available. I got an email, called the oncology nurse and she read the word “negative” over the phone. This was an amazingly short turn-around time.
I then had the rest of the afternoon to relax and rejoice.
I took my dog Maggie with me to an area in the east bay hills where I have a prayer spot. With no one else there mid-afternoon, I sat on the dirt and sang my prayers of gratitude to the Sustainer who has given me another year of life and more assurance that the healing continues.
Twice a year, now, for these test times, before I get lucky and hear the words “negative” and “no evidence of disease,” my emotional being descends into the underworld. There it is again: the echo of a particular type of terror known to anyone who has had to face the devastation of cancer.
In order to make sure I’m still OK, I have to face this terror, in small doses, again and again, for the rest of this life.