cancer, Guest Posts

The Worst Part of Cancer

March 13, 2024
cancer

“I meant to tell you.  The same day you told me about your diagnosis, my husband happened to be listening to a podcast about cancer patients’ reflections on the worst part of their experiences.”

“Oh” I reply to my neighbor across the space between our respective porches.  We live in a historic district.  She’s standing on the wrap-around porch of her Victorian, while I’m sitting on the side-porch of my Colonial.  The space between a mere 12’ feet or so.  I imagine this is how neighbors socialized a hundred years ago, and we still do today.

“Yeah, he said universally everyone reported that the worst part of their cancer was the time between the biopsy and receiving the results.”

“Huh,” I respond, “that really wasn’t bad for me.  I wasn’t all that worried about it.”

As an avid yogi, I spend a lot of time focused on being present.  Post-biopsy I was primarily pissed off that my boob hurt from all the needle pricks and the hematoma that developed as a result.  I spent a weekend replacing ice packs in a tight compression bra and trying to figure out how to sleep without putting pressure on my left breast.

The purple glue covering several inches of my skin was strange.  Necessary to keep the three incisions shut, but made it appear like my breast had been in some sort of fist fight and ended up with a black eye.  The wide band of the compression bra hit in a different spot than my normal bras and initially annoyed the hell out of me.  Undoing the Velcro strap to switch ice packs was no big deal, but it took a bit of Cirque du Soleil navigation to grab the strap that had fallen over my shoulder and wrangle it back up and affixed to the front.  I thought I couldn’t wait for the required 24 hours to pass so I could remove it.  Once off, I missed its support.  Minor movements and jiggles called out to me with twitches of pain.

My poor cats, always concerned if I’m sick, piled on top of me that first night, making it difficult to sleep.  I eventually ended up outside on the porch swing around 5am.  The May air was cool, a light breeze rustled through the leaves of our soaring 100+ year old oak trees.  The porch swing gently swayed, I covered myself with a soft couch blanket, and finally I slept.

Amid all this physical discomfort, some part of me thought, “This better be something. I can’t imagine going through all of that out of an abundance of caution”.  I always envisioned a biopsy as a quick needle to an area, suck out some tissue, then off you go.  Little did I know what an MRI-guided core needle breast biopsy entailed: an undetermined amount of time in an MRI machine in what the medical staff referred to as “Superman Pose”.  Face down, arms out in front, left breast in a cage.  Instructed to stay “completely still”, I went in and out of the MRI machine more times than I could count.  The construct of time ceased to exist.

When the resident went over the possible complications with me prior to obtaining my consent, he mentioned “insufficient sample”.  That should have jumped out at me.  I should have realized that meant it wasn’t easy to pinpoint the spot to biopsy.  Hell, the fact that an MRI with contrast was even necessary to find the spot should have alerted me that this wasn’t an easy task. But I was a cheerful patient, simply going along with the medical process.  Trusting that the experts around me were doing the things that were necessary.

The table initially rolled me slowly in for images.  Whirling noises and loud banging, like rocks tumbling through a barrel, bounced around my head.

I told myself to focus on my breathing.  The nurse who had scheduled the biopsy asked me if I was claustrophobic or would need anything to help me calm down.  I told her yes, that I was a bit claustrophobic, but I was confident I could yoga breathe my way through it.

I’m a good yogi after all.  I won’t be here long. I made it through the abbreviated MRI breast screening just fine.  That only took 10 minutes.  I can do 10 minutes. Just stay calm and breathe.

Inhale.

Exhale.

Am I moving too much with my breath?  They told me not to move.

How do you breathe without moving your chest?

Okay, maybe don’t breathe so deeply.

Shallow breaths.

Inhale.

Don’t move.

Exhale.

Smaller breaths came more quickly; I felt slightly light-headed.

Am I going to hyperventilate?

How much will I move if I pass out?

I tried to make myself breathe more slowly, while also not fixating on my breath.

Focus on something else.

I envisioned the sunflower mural I spent years staring at during yoga classes.

“Okay, we’re going to roll you out to inject the contrast dye now.”

The table slowly starts moving back out.

Still face down, I’m disoriented on where I am in space, and how long until the table would reach a stopping point.  Once stopped the dye was injected into the IV in my right arm.  I was warned some people get a metallic taste in their mouth, but I didn’t notice anything.

The table slowly rolled in again for contrast images.  All is dark.  I think I have my eyes closed, but I don’t really know.  It doesn’t matter.

Inhale.

Don’t move.

Exhale.

I listen to the rock sounds.  I don’t know how much time has passed.

The table starts to slowly roll back out again, and I feel dripping on my arm.

Has the IV blown?

Is that blood?

Don’t move.

Don’t move.

Don’t move.

A nurse arrives.  I ask about the dripping, moving my mouth and head as little as possible.

“Oh yes, looks like that’s a bit of saline.  Nothing to worry about.  I’ll clean that up.”  She wipes the fluid off my arm.  My fingers are tingling from numbness.  I wiggle my fingers slightly to regain sensation, while doing everything in my power not to move my arms or anything else.

The nurse’s hand covers mine.  “Oh, honey, I’m so sorry.  We really need you not to move.  I’ll rub it.”

She gently rubs my left hand.  It feels nice.  My right hand is also numb.  She doesn’t touch that one.

But her other hand is laying softly on my lower back.  I appreciate the pressure.  A bit of comfort from an unknown stranger.  I was put in the MRI machine so quickly that I wasn’t sure who was in the room, or whose faces I knew.

The doctor, a faceless voice to the left of me: “Time for some lidocaine.  You may feel a pinch.”

A needle is inserted into my left breast twice with lidocaine shots.  A few moments later, another instrument (a needle I presume?) is inserted into the breast.

I think they’ll take the sample now.

“Okay, we need to roll you back in to confirm we have right spot.”

I’m momentarily shocked. I didn’t realize more images would be needed.

The table starts slowly rolling back in.

More time in the machine.  In the darkness.

Inhale.

Exhale.

Rock sounds.

Banging.

I can’t feel the instrument in my breast.  I wonder how it stays in place without anyone holding it.

Inhale.

Exhale.

The table starts to roll out again.  There’s discussion from the faceless voices; the placement isn’t right.  The doctor removes the instrument to try again.

Now I can feel pressure on my chest wall, and the movement of whatever has been inserted into my left breast.  I speak up to say “I can feel that” while still trying not to move.

They stop and administer more lidocaine shots.  More movement of the instrument in my breast, but now I only feel a bit of pressure.

The table starts again, slowly rolling back into the machine.

Inhale.

Rock noises.

Exhale.

Darkness.

Inhale.

Don’t move.

Exhale.

Tingling is slowly weaving its way through my body.

The rolling of the table starts again.  The faceless voices are again discussing the instrument’s positioning.

It’s still not right.

I think more lidocaine shots are administered, but I’m so focused on breathing and the numbness and pins and needles that I don’t know.  I’m trying to be a good patient and stay calm and still.  That’s my only job.

Everything tingles.  Everything hurts.  I don’t really have a sense of where my body is.

The instrument is placed for a third time.  The table moves back into the machine again to confirm placement.

More banging noises and darkness.

Inhale.

Exhale.

Inhale.

I wish my yoga instructor friend with the fantastic calming voice was here to talk to me.

Exhale.

I wish someone I knew was here to talk to me.

Inhale.

I wish the faceless voices would talk to me.

Exhale.

Inhale.

I wonder how many more times we’re going to do this.

Exhale.

We need to stop doing this.

There’s excitement when the table rolls out next.

Faceless voice: “We’re in the right spot!  Okay, we’re going to take the sample now.”

A machine starts up with a whirl.  It sounds like the drill at a dentist, as if I were getting a filling.  I’m presuming it’s sucking the tissue out that’s necessary for the biopsy.  Thankfully my breast is numb from the lidocaine, and I don’t feel any of this.  I hear the supervising doctor instruct the resident to take a bit more.

Once the machine is turned off, everything moves quickly.  Several people are suddenly pulling me up from my prone, Superman pose, and instructing me to put my hands on bars.  It reminds me of the pommel horse you see during men’s gymnastics. It’s jarring after an hour of complete stillness, the light blinding.  I can’t feel the handlebars, all is numb.

A nurse has her hand on my left breast, applying pressure to the biopsy site.  The gown top is open.  I don’t know who is in the room to see my bare chest and I don’t care. The hands around my torso stabilize me and guide me as I’m flipped onto a different gurney.  Once on my back, they start wheeling me quickly out of the MRI room.

The first nurse is jogging alongside, still applying pressure to my breast.

Tears stream down my face.

Yoga breath.

Inhale.

Exhale.

Breathe.

Be Calm.

Breathe.

Be Calm.

Inhale.

Exhale.

Lights and ceiling tiles flash past my eyes.  The sounds of wheels moving beneath the table.

Wet tears on my cheeks.

I pay no attention to where we are going. I don’t look at any of the faces surrounding me.  They are still just voices.

A voice asks me if I need anything.  I request a tissue to wipe the tears.

—–

I was shaken when I left the doctor’s office that day.  Later I learned from MyChart that the procedure took 1 hour and 5 minutes. So no, the days following I gave little thought to the biopsy results.  I was too busy processing the experience to think forward to what the pathology would show.

My neighbor gets a quizzical look on her face when I state that waiting for results wasn’t that bad, “Well, that’s because you assumed you had it.”

This isn’t entirely true.

“Yes, I knew it was a possibility,” I reply, “But I’d also agreed to additional screenings.  I figured biopsies of suspicious areas meant they were being thorough, so I didn’t see a reason to freak out.”

Another quizzical look.  This doesn’t align with the podcast.

“You also aren’t through all of this yet.  Maybe looking back you’ll decide that waiting for the results was the worst part.”

I appreciated that my neighbor was chatting with me like a normal person.  Very few people know the gracious thing to say to someone who is dealing with a cancer diagnosis.

I’m guessing she felt she’d learned something that provided some insight – some bit of understanding that would lead to a moment of connection.  Maybe she envisioned me sighing and responding with some version of “Yes!  You get it!  That’s exactly how I feel!”

But I don’t need a podcast to tell me which part of cancer is the worst.

Marie Hall lives in the Midwest. This is her first published piece. We are thrilled she chose us to share her story. 

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