This may be hard to read if you don’t like needles.
By the time I finally got to sleep last night it was way later than I should admit, and I had almost forgotten entirely about the PET scan I had to go to this morning. A PET scan is a test that scans your body for cancer. Back in the day they used to have to cut a cancer patient open and conduct “exploratory surgery,” where they would take a little piece of every organ and test it for cancer. My Aunt had to go through that and I understand it’s unpleasant, so we’re awfully lucky these days to have PET scans.
The deal, though, is that you can’t do any repetitive movement for 12 hours before the scan, and you must fast for 6 hours before coming to the hospital. Repetitive movement includes things like reading and chewing gum, not just lifting weights and flexing in the mirror (I don’t know why these are the ones that come to mind…).
Anyway, when the lab assistant came to get me in the waiting room she said she liked my shoes. You may not appreciate the triumph in those words if you haven’t ever been shopping with me. Especially shoe shopping. The last time I went shoe shopping, a week ago, I sat in the store for nearly 2 hours staring at the shoes like they were speaking in a foreign tongue. I finally picked out a pair – a disgusting, puke brown pair of Euro-trash. I got into the car and put them on and realized that somehow between the 2-hour debate, the cash register and the parking lot, I had bought an pair of puke brown, Euro-trash shoes. And they didn’t even remotely fit. Seriously, not even close. At what point in the store did I say to myself – “Yes, these are the ones!”? Was it the 45 minutes I spent walking around in them, seeing if they were? Was I training to be a geisha? What is wrong with me?
Like a shoe-buying idiot, I went back into the store and returned the shoes that I had just bought and tried again. This time I picked out two different shoes, one pair brown and one pair black. I paid quickly and left. The cashier gave me a funny look. I would have too.
Naturally, only one of the pairs of shoes I bought fits, the black pair is clearly too small (no, I’m not kidding, I’m that bad at buying shoes). But the brown pair! Oh yes! These were such a good pick that the PET scan girl needed to comment on them. I thought about telling her this story, but it’s bad enough that I wasted YOUR time telling the story, let alone some helpless lab assistant that was just looking for something to say during the long walk to the trailer.
They keep the PET scan machine in a semi trailer and drive it around from hospital to hospital because no one hospital can fork over the $2.6 million it costs to own one. The lab techs travel with the machine and spend their days cooped up in the trailer with sick people, commenting on their shoes.
They sat me down by the machine. The lab technician – an older guy with a violent case of the shakes, the likes of which I’ve only seen in alcoholics and Parkinson’s patients – prepared my arm for an IV while the assistant asked me questions and checked things off on her check board.
“Do you have diabetes?”
“No diabetes.” I said. The lab tech rubbed my arm with the alcohol swab. I’m used to getting stuck with needles now, I’m actually bothered more now by the smell of alcohol and gauze than anything else. I can’t stand the smell of hospitals.
“Have you ever had chemotherapy?”
“Yes, I’ve had four months of it now.” I said. The lab tech lined up the needle in his shaking hand.
“Did you have it recently?” And he stuck me in the arm. But he missed the vein, I could tell right away (I’m getting good at that). I think he knew it too, because he started sliding the needle around under my skin, trying to dig into the right place.
“Eh…What?” I was trying to pay attention to the girl asking me questions, but when I looked at her, I saw she was staring at the needle, too. She didn’t have the look of surprise or terror that I had on, though, her look was more like ‘Oh, here he goes again.’
“When was the last time you had chemotherapy?” She looked at me.
“Oh, uh, it was Monday. The last time was Monday.” I said, and looked over to see Mr. Shakey McShakerson trying to pull a sample of blood out of the needle he had stuck in my arm. No blood was coming though, so he pushed it in further. I was wearing my look of horror by now, I’m sure.
I think the lab assistant left for lunch then. I don’t know. I was starting to be pretty occupied with this dude that was stabbing me in the arm. He brought over a small syringe that was encased in a half-inch thick tube of protective metal.
A PET scan is an interesting thing. The first thing you have to know is that cancer loves sugar. Cancer eats up sugar like crazy. I seem to remember even craving sugar back before I was diagnosed, but that might be something my mind made up for me. Anyway, in a PET scan, they basically inject you with radioactive sugar water, and then record where it goes in your body. If you have cancer, the sugar will go straight there and your tumor will light up on their monitor like a light bulb.
Shakey started to push the radioactive sugar water into my IV and I tried to look away.
“Does that burn?” He asked.
“No. …Wait…YES. YES, oh, yes, that burns.” He took out the needle and put it and it’s casing back where he got it.
“Is it supposed to burn like that?” I asked. I knew the answer was no because I’d done this once before and I didn’t remember my arm catching fire that time.
“No, it’s not supposed to. The IV must not be in your vein, or it’s leaking out. We’ll have to start another one.”
Oh God. You mean the radioactive material that you keep in a 1/2 inch thick lead casing has leaked out of my vein and is burning the tissues in my arm? And you want to do it again?
He tied the rubber band around my wrist and told me to make a fist. He got out another needle and shakily held it above my clenched fist, like he was about to cut the wires on a time bomb, but wasn’t sure which wires he was supposed to cut. When he stuck it in he, I think, went to far and went clear through to the other side of the vein. It’s hard to explain what that feels like, but I’m pretty sure that’s what happened. I looked down and saw the white knuckles of my other hand clenching my seat.
How much more of this should I tell you?
There was a sharp pain, and I looked up to see him rooting around in my hand, still trying to find the vein. He finally found it, thank you JEE-zus. He brought over another vial of the radioactive stuff and pushed it through the new IV. I was probably emitting my own light by that point, if he’d of thought to turn off the lights I could have done my impression of Jessica Tandy in “Cocoon.”
The funny thing about the guy was just how likable he was, despite his tortuous incompetence with a needle. He seemed genuinely interested in what life is like as a musician, and we talked a little bit about how he’d like to go to the place in Ireland that was displayed on his calendar this month.
Once the stuff is in you, though, you have to just relax. Repetitive motion will attract the radioactive sugar, so if you’re talking it’ll look like you have cancer of the vocal chords or something. He left me in a different room for about 45 minutes and I think I even fell asleep for awhile.
As Shakey brought me in for the scan I walked by the old lady that had been scanned before me.
“Oh, are you next?” She asked. She looked especially interested, but I think that was because she had penned in her eyebrows a little too high this morning.
“Yeah, how did you do?” I replied.
“Oh, I did fine. But we had some trouble getting the IV in me…” Shakey coughed and looked away.
“Ok Dave, your turn.” He said.
The PET scan machine looks just like an MRI or a CT scan, if you’ve ever had one of those. There’s a small slab of a bed that you lay on, and it goes in and out of a big metal tube that surrounds your body and makes funny noises. You have to lay very still or the imaging won’t turn out right.
As Shakey was about to put me into the machine he said, “Do you remember? Was this a head and neck thing or what?”
If I understood him correctly, I think he meant to ask me what he was supposed to be doing. Next I thought he might ask me if I knew how to drive this thing. I said, “Well, I had this big tumor in my chest.” I hoped that information would be enough.
“Oh really? Wow, in your chest?”
“Yeah, a great big one.” I said. He seemed satisfied with that and went into the other room and closed the big, heavy door between us.
About 30 minutes later, when the scanning was done and I’d fallen asleep again, Shakey came in to pull me off of the slab.
“Did you get some good pictures?” I asked, hoping he might show me.
“Oh yeah, yeah. They turned out really well. I set them for an extra 15 seconds and they turned out really well.”
“Did you see a big tumor?” I asked, still digging.
Then, it was funny, he took me over to his computer. He told me that he couldn’t interpret any of the photos, and then he told me what all the photos meant. I saw a big black thing where my heart is, but he told me that that was my heart and that was normal. I didn’t see anything where the tumor used to be.
I didn’t see anything where the tumor used to be!
The images have to be turned over to a radiologist so that they can charge me another $800, but if the radiologist sees the same nothing that I saw, I’m going to start calling myself a cancer survivor.
As I left the semi, I told Shakey that I hoped to never see him again. He got the joke, but I was only kind of kidding.