Resilience to Cancer? Finish Your Shower

The results are in!  If you’ve been following the chronicles of my life here, you know I recently got concerned about some symptoms (read here). I called my endocrinologist.  She ordered blood tests to check levels of catecholamines and metanepherines. These are substances that pheochromocytomas can make.  When they do, it results in episodic hypertension, headaches, sweating, irritability and anxiety.  Those tests were normal and this was a relief—no need to search for an offending tumor with subsequent surgery to remove it.  

She also ordered an MRI of my neck.  I have a carotid tumor on the right side.  My brain was worrying that it had started to grow again—but again—relief.  It only grew 1mm, which is not significant.  

Just the other night, I was having a discussion with a friend who recently was diagnosed and treated for prostate cancer.  Prostate cancer is one of the best ones to get (anyone with prostate cancer is free to cringe or rage at that statement) because it is usually very treatable and slow growing. Anyway, he’s new to post-cancer-diagnosis life.  He asked if I still get worried about little symptoms and sensations.  

“I’ve just been going through that!” I said.  I explained the past few months, the symptoms, the tests, the reassuring results.  “And I’ve been doing this for 14 years, so yeah, I think it’s normal.” 

I used to (still kind-of do) feel stupid for going through this process. But it helped to hear Mark Nepo explain his experience to Oprah (listen here).  He discovered a zit on his scar line in the shower one day.  He went the rounds mentally, Oh no! What if the cancer is back? I can’t do this again!  What if it kills me this time? All of this while standing in the shower—he went through the full cycle and ended up thinking, Well, if this is it, I’m going to finish my shower.

What a useful mantra?!?  I’ve used it over and over again.  Well if this is it, I guess I’m going to make this PB&J sandwich for R…surf…go to sleep…finish this show…go for a walk.  Maybe this, better than anything else I’ve heard, describes resiliency to living with cancer. 

I’ve known some people who got stuck on the, If this is it… part.  I suspect they couldn’t bear to finish the sentence.  Maybe they assumed cancer would finish it for them.  For some it never did.  So they live with the haunting.  Some treat it with addictive and numbing practices that muddle the thought and the symptoms that bring it on.  I understand this temptation.  

But put that against the lighthearted, practicality Mark’s response, …Well, if this is it, I’m going to finish my shower—so much better.

While I’ve been waiting for appointments and having tests done, I’ve been going through this process.  I had decidedly the worst MRI experience of my life.  If anyone is looking for methods of torture, here’s one: 

Have the intended victim lie down on their back with their head in a dish.  Put a foam wedge on one side of their face and a towel on the other side so they cannot move.  Very important—make sure their skull is slightly off center in the dish.  Then put a cage over their face and a weighted panel on their upper chest/neck.  Tell them it is very important that they not swallow, even though they might have cried in the bathroom for just a minute, immediately before lying down.  Next, conveyor-belt them, with all the gear, into the tube. Play loud noises.  

After about ten minutes, a searing pain will begin on the left side of the back of their head.  They will become acutely aware of a ridge in their skull that is resting on what feels like, a hard piece of plastic. 

They will know the importance of holding still because movement means blurry pictures, so they will endeavor to be still, using every means of meditation, distraction, prayer, and cursing available.  

At 30 minutes, pull them out of the machine.  The recipient might use a words like, “this is killing the back of my head,” but assure them that any repositioning is out of the question.  Inject some contrast in a vein and push them back in the machine for 15 minutes.  

I made it through 8.5 of the last 15 minutes.  Of all the MRIs in my life, I’ve never squeezed the panic plunger.  I passed it back and forth between my hands.  I debated. I considered what it means to be reasonable. Then I became angry about every time I was quiet for the sake of being reasonable.  Then I squeezed the panic plunger.  

I was ready to climb out of that machine, pictures be damned, but suddenly repositioning was an option *insert eye roll emoji*.  Almost immediately my pain started to relent and she pushed me back in for another six minutes.  But by then I was a complete mess.  I cried freely in the tube with the cage on my face.  I swallowed tears and snot. They ran off the sides of my face into the foam and towels attempting to keep me it still.  

“You moved a lot after the contrast,” the tech remarked as she pulled me out at last.  

“No freaking kidding.” 

I went home, loaded R up in an Uber to the airport where we missed our flight.  The agent rebooked us as I cried at the ticketing counter too.  Then I settled into a day of airports and airplanes that took us to a pristine campground in an aspen forest in Colorado with some of my favorite people.  

R was not into the group photo idea.

This is what I’ve learned—go down the rabbit hole of anxiety for a minute.  You’ll end up there eventually anyway. Try to stay conscious of what you are doing.  Let the emotions bubble up.  Let the cycle complete.  Then finish your shower.