It’s true: the monster under the bed is always much more scary than the monster standing right in front of you.
I spend three hours in the waiting room of the NYU Imaging department, crossing and recrossing my legs, bouncing my toes, waiting for the MRI test that I’d been dreading for almost a week. I sort of read The Economist, then Time, then a creepy, well-intentioned magazine called Coping with Cancer. I flip through articles about how to divorce when you have cancer (the disease either strengthens your marriage or tears it apart) and how to sell your life insurance policy while you’re still alive, and what kinds of drugs help the dry mouth and sores caused by chemo. I suddenly realize that cancer is an emotional, medical, financial and social train wreck happening all the time, all around us. Most of the time, we don’t want to look. All that is disturbing, but I at that moment I am more scared of the MRI than of the breast surgery or of running out of money or of mouth sores. The MRI is the bogeyman.
Apparently, someone had had an emergency during an MRI earlier in the day. That has backed up the schedule. When I first arrive, early, they are one hour behind. Then it is two, then three. A couple of women in the waiting room have little meltdowns about the inconvenience, and why couldn’t someone have notified them, and so on and so on. People deal with stress and fear differently. I figure, I’ve got breast cancer, so waiting is the least of my problems.
Finally, the nurse calls my name. She’s friendly, kind, reassuring, like everyone in these cancer places. She makes me review a checklist of metal things I should NOT have on my person: pacemakers, aneurysm clips, a long, long list. A magnet as powerful as the one inside an MRI turns even any bit of metal into a projectile: paper clips, trays, IV poles. The nurse tells me she once forgot about a pen in her pocket and the pull of the MRI magnet on the tiny spring in the pen was so strong that it tried to fly out of her scrubs. Not too long ago, I heard of an MRI accident in Westchester County, north of New York, in which someone left a fire extinguisher in an MRI room, the thing slammed into the patient, killing him. That’s not funny, but this picture of a fully loaded pallet that slammed into an MRI is:
How could someone forget a loaded pallet? Hope no one was killed in that one.
Long story short: The test is not nearly as bad as I’d thought it would be. I take the Valium, of course. I get an IV, with a plastic needle. They put headphones on me, plastic. I ask for classical music. I get onto the exam table stomach first and suspend my breasts into two, plastic receptacles. I’m beginning to think that the experience of having breast cancer means having your breasts compressed into every shape possible, by every weird device imaginable. For the biopsy, it was a pancake. For the MRI, it’s cubes. I’m hoping for cones or pyramids next. Watch out Dale Chihuly, I’m hoping for a breast-inspired glass chandelier.
They slide me into the MRI bore, I can feel my arms pressing against the sides yet I don’t freak. I’m not sure if that’s because of the lovely tranquilizer or because I’m face down. I close my eyes. I can’t really hear the music because the gradient magnets whirling around make a terrific, jackhammer racket. Without the music, I start reciting the Lord’s Prayer to calm down. It helps. I try the Nicene Creed, but it’s too long for me to remember. Guess I’m more tense than I want to admit consciously. I alternate progressive relaxation with the Lord’s Prayer.
Halfway through my half-hour in the bore, they inject a contrast dye, gadolinium. It feels cold, yet it slightly raises the temperature of my blood as it passes through my veins and arteries. This element also changes the magnetic field in my breasts, highlighting the circulatory system. I think tumors hog blood flow, so that make sense. A few minutes later, the tables slides back out of the bore. Done. Big exhale.
Onto genetic testing!