Every three months, my calendar becomes filled with medical appointments. When you have cancer, they monitor you on a regular basis. It is both daunting and comforting. Yes, that sounds like a contradiction, but so is my life on most days.
The procedures are carefully assigned a label. I understand. Whether we realize it or not, we all have emotional responses to words, the connotative meanings which come from our individual perceptions. A visit to the resident vampire’s chair for a draw, for example, was once universally called a “blood test,” but that implied a “right” answer, which induced performance anxiety. I’m a teacher. I know these things. So now, they call it “blood work.” Not sure if that’s much better. As Shakespeare said, “a rose by any other name” … still has thorns (that’s my addition). And so, I sit, waiting for my turn. There is a score to be had, a magic number that means pass or fail. The longer I am out of regular treatment, the more I am dependent on my body’s ability to fight off any invasion of malignant cells. It is nerve-wracking. I try to remember to breathe.
And then comes the PET scan. The tech recognizes me now, since I am a repeat customer. I would like to think it is because of my engaging personality, rather than my challenging diagnosis, but either way, I appreciate his kindness. We banter back in forth. I ask about his son; he comments on my hair.
This is a long complicated process, but my doctor is vigilant, and insists on one which provides the truest picture of the current state of my health. It, too, is a study in contradictions. You are asked to drink a glass of highly toxic liquid containing poisonous metal, then have a radioactive substance injected into your veins. For the next hour or so, you sit quietly as it makes its way through your body. Afterwards, you lie on a table while the machine slowly and methodically takes photos of your insides. That’s the abbreviated version. But ironically, what doesn’t kill you could save your life. I often wonder what kind of medical daredevil first volunteered to try this bit of diagnostic magic?
Perhaps I am overthinking things, but the past few months have taught me to look beyond the obvious. Sure, these fancy devices are scientific marvels, but the bones of the skull simply present themselves as rigid and opaque, unable to capture the thoughts that lie within my brain. It’s rather amazing, isn’t it, that all I see and experience, the creating and problem-solving, come from that illusive mind. And while my heart might demonstrate its regular beating, no medical device can show what it feels or how deeply it loves. And certainly, even the most sophisticated piece of equipment cannot display the energy which is my soul, the life force that lives within me and will remain when everything else falls away. As technically sophisticated as we imagine ourselves to be, we are only able to objectively identify a human being through physical images, cells which die and are replaced. Subjectively, we are so much more.
At one time, the idea of needles scared me to death, but now, I make small talk as I absentmindedly offer my chest port or arm and take a deep breath as instructed. A few years ago, I might have panicked at the sight of the scan machine, worrying about my claustrophobia and arthritic shoulder. But my life is different now, altered forever by a disease that will never be cured. And with each procedure, I am given a little hope that my days will be extended into months and maybe even years.
So perhaps if the machine could see inside my heart, it would find gratitude and my mind would reveal acceptance. And my soul? It belongs to God.
Now, of course, I wait, which is the most difficult part in this. I have fallow up visits with both of my oncologists scheduled. Life has always been uncertain, but never more so than now.