Nothing is straight forward after being diagnosed with cancer. Exhibit A: The tummy ache that revealed a mass in my spine.
My husband informed me that it would be pretty inconsiderate not to disclose up front that everything is fine. I’m fine. My new posse of sketchy lumps and masses (introduced by name below) have all been deemed, by my village of radiologic experts, benign. But I invite you to remain seated with your seatbelt fastened, keep your arms and legs inside inside at all times, and take a lap on the roller coaster that was my most recent medical scare.
A little over 2 weeks ago I started having a tummy ache. Right upper quadrant (RUQ) pain, as it is specifically noted in the medical world. Pain up under my right ribs that got worse when I took a deep breath. I’m a doctor. I’m reasonably intelligent. There are only so many things that RUQ pain can be, gallstones being the most common. While it didn’t quite fit the profile, it made the most sense to me and to my primary doctor and the sharp medical student working with him. The normal next step in this situation is an ultrasound of that part of the abdomen to look at the gallbladder and liver. By this point, as is the case with a statistically significant portion of all new medical problems (citation needed), it was late Friday afternoon, meaning nothing at all would happen for the next 3 days. So I called a doctor friend who has his very own, high-tech ultrasound probe that plugs directly into his iPhone. My Friday evening consisted of getting my pasty, soft RUQ prodded and imaged by my friend, at my request, on his living room couch, chatting with his wife who is my good friend, while witnessing their three year old daughter experience a whoopie cushion for the first time. Fun times. Until those ultrasound waves resonated off of a liver mass. Meet Phil.
In short, instead of an ill-timed but totally-benign gallstone, I had a biggish liver mass. And even though my breast cancer was stage 1A, meaning NO SPREAD, not even to one lymph node, a liver mass is at least mildly concerning. I passed this along to my doctor and by some medical and administrative miracle, I was able to finagle my way into an MRI that next Monday.
I have had two MRIs in the past. One was of my hip which revealed “degenerative changes” instead of a stress fracture from my 10K training program. (Doctor: I’ve got good news and bad news… you do not have a running injury, but basically your hip is old. Me: Rude.) And the other was of my brain, which showed nothing at all, proving that my swimmy vision was just my very first migraine aura at age 37, and not a brain tumor or aneurysm or anything else of any concern. I’ve been crammed into that tiny tunnel and experienced the mysterious noises and vibrations, the anxiety of trying to hold perfectly still for almost an hour. It’s a mental challenge for even the least claustrophobic among us. (For the truly claustrophobic, there is medication.) But add to that the threat of metastatic cancer and it became a breeding ground for emotions and musings so broad that I’m still re-experiencing them weeks later, all set to the soundtrack of a music genre of my choosing, pumped in through magnet-immune cords and headphones. When they asked me for my selection, I considered Imogen Heap (my go-to zen vibe) and, in a moment of fleeting angst, Green Day (but what good is angry punk rock if I can’t yell-sing along at the top of my lungs?). Knowing I couldn’t possibly sound less cool to the hipster MR tech, I went with, and I quote, light classical. But I know what I like, and I did not want Wagner in the mix.
In I went, to the tune of Antonio Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. As the machine powered up, so did my mind.
I imagined each of the uncountable protons in my body spinning, spinning in their respective magnetic fields, straightening up like obedient children in the giant magnet of the MRI, then dancing, dancing to the radio frequency pulses of the machine.
I wondered how it was possible to manipulate the most infinitesimal unit of our physical existence and not come out the other side inexorably altered.
I pictured Phil, perhaps silently plotting an epic battle inside my body, or more likely, smugly benign, sitting in on some sort of a silent protest of my sanity.
I pretended I was an enigmatic, badass galactic traveler preparing for deep sleep in a sleek pod, or mid-takeoff in a cush one-woman spaceship, or spinning dangerously in an interdimensional vessel to make contact with other life forms… basically all the Hollywood sci fi heroines I could come up with.
I imagined, for the first time, my family scattering my ashes off a silently bobbing sailboat somewhere in Manchioneel Bay in the Caribbean.
I wondered what the geographic coordinates are for Manchioneel Bay and thought about how that would be a cool tattoo and how I should hurry up and get one before I die.
I pictured my four year old daughter as a teenager, an adult, maybe a mother, an activist, a problem solver, a force for good in the world.
I wished peace for my husband and love, all the love.
I pondered how surprisingly synchronous the disconcerting pulses of my magnetic cocoon were with Vivaldi’s orchestral Summer thunderstorms.
And then they pulled me out.
* * * * *
Phil was just one of FOUR liver masses. Meet his cronies, Herb, Hugh, and Orville. They all appear to be BENIGN tangles of blood vessels, called hemangiomas, as was predicted by my braintrust of radiologists. But amongst the shenanigans inside my liver, Jean Luc was discovered, quiet and solitary in my 11th thoracic vertebra (one little bone in the middle of my spine). I had to wait two more days to get a bone scan, during which time, only after I fled a coffee shop crying one morning, I fully re-entered Denialville. My brain had stressed out one too many times and shut itself right down. I went through a period like this shortly after my original diagnosis. I was forgetful and spacey (not in an enigmatically badass way) and laughed too loudly at inappropriate times, but I was also creepily unconcerned. Three cheers for built-in coping mechanisms. It allowed me to focus on things that really mattered, like making 28 vegan heart shaped pancakes the morning before C’s breakfast-themed preschool Valentine’s Day Party, a task I fully brought upon myself. (Fun mental image time: me, unkempt, lacking the technical acumen for such an endeavor, frantically mixing and flipping, right up until 8:55 am, throwing a parka over my grease-splattered PJs, and baby-wiping crusty batter and yesterday’s smeared mascara off my face at the red lights I hit on the short commute, C totally unaware, belting out the latest seasonal iteration of Baby Shark from her carseat.) After that romp, a shower and an hour in the scanner with a warm blanket was actually a pretty nice little Valentine’s Day treat. But even more so, of course, was the news I received just a few hours later that Jean Luc was a total dud, not showing up AT ALL on the scan, which was 100% good news. (Most likely another hemangioma, I’m told.)
Meanwhile, my tummy ache resolved. And like my racing heart from a few weeks prior, there is no tidy explanation. But I’ve been injected with contrast and a radioactive materials, and scanned and zapped from stem to stern in a radiographic goose chase that should leave me relieved that there are no more, at this time, malignant lumps inside of me. Which is good, because I am running out of names.