the mri

photo: venice, italy (july 2009), piazza san marco

For a little fun (yes, that’s sarcasm) last night I had an MRI. Bilateral breasts. It’s been 6-months since my left breast mastectomy and reconstruction, and the MRI was booked after my pathology came back with the big C word attached to it.

This scan is to confirm that the mastectomy removed the cancer and that it hasn’t crept back in, or moseyed on over to the right breast.

Long story short – it hasn’t and it didn’t. Whew.

Now knowing that my scan showed nothing suspicious, I thought I’d write a bit about what an MRI is like. If you’re lucky, you’ve never had one. Let’s leave it at that.

There’s nothing special you need to do at home to prepare for your MRI other than leave all of your jewelry at home, and make sure none of your clothes have metal objects or thread. If you know you are claustrophobic, or might be nervous about the MRI, you can ask your doctor for drugs to sedate you before your appointment.

Once you get to the hospital you’ll be told to remove all of your clothes except for your underwear, socks, and shoes. You will change into a gown and be told to make sure the opening is at the front.

After you lock up your clothes (and your phone!) you sit and while you wait you fill out 4-pages of questions that you have probably answered on at least a half-dozen other occasions. All the more difficult when your fingers feel like they have razor blades in them thanks to the chemo-induced neuropathy. Hopefully that’s not your exact experience.

Let’s talk a moment about filling out medical forms in Ontario. I can attest that you really need to commit your medical history to memory once you have a ‘serious’ diagnosis. What procedures have you had done in the past, where was it done, what year was it done, allergies, reactions to the allergens, your family history, your own history, and now there are Covid and vaccine related questions too.

I’ve often wondered why this information isn’t collected in a provincial database so that instead of needing to regurgitate your history every single time, that you just review and confirm that the record is complete and add new details as needed. Like, I recently learned that I have an allergy to CT-contrast dye. Didn’t know that the last time I filled out my medical story.

Maybe Google or Facebook need to manage our medical records. Joking! I’m truly joking.

Since it’s an MRI, and an MRI is basically a giant magnet, you also need to answer dozens of questions about metal shrapnel, accidents, tattoos, piercings, medical appliances, and so on. If you’re like me, you start to get nervous that perhaps you have metal in your body that you’ve forgotten about. I don’t. You likely don’t either. But I do wonder if metal on/in the body would case more damage to the machine, or to me. Hope I never learn the answer to that question.

Once the technician fetches you for your scan you are asked if you need to use the washroom. For a breast MRI you will need to lay on your belly for about 30 minutes, and your stress levels go up, and for many of us, nervous bladder happens. I first said I didn’t need to go. He asked again. I reconsidered. He likely knows what he’s about more than me. So when you’re asked, just say yes. You’ll be better for it.

I was also handed a new medical mask, one without a metal strip for the nose. No metal in the MRI. It’s not a suggestion.

The shoes come off and are replaced with surgical booties. My turban also was removed in favour of a super sexy blue hairnet. I remember last autumn when I had my first MRI, and I had hair, that my hair was very slippery in the hair net and kept slipping out. Not a problem this time. You could say my chemo helped me over prepare for this MRI.

You’re pointed toward a table with padding and holes and a giant circle around it. Heart rate goes up. Not only are you thinking of laying still on this table, but you’re also wondering what they might find. Not sure which one causes the elevated heart rate more.

For a breast MRI, you are asked to crawl up onto the table and rest on your knees while you open your gown. Then you and the tech spend some time getting to know each other a tiny bit while you are guided to the optimal position to lay down in.

Next you will be asked to shuffle forward, and to place your breasts into the rectangular shaped holes on the bottom of the table. First question – why rectangular? I mean, I guess why not. But honestly, why not circles?

Anyway, once you get past that little smile the tech asks if they can help to position your breasts. Of course. Honestly, anything that needs to be done to see, treat, and kill cancer I will agree to on the spot.

After a few attempts at getting the perfect position for the scan it is time to begin. I will say it’s awkward to lay face down on a table with a medical mask on. I don’t have any issues at all with wearing a mask, but I found myself starting to gasp for air, and worried I’d not be able to breathe or swallow.

For the first time, I wondered if I was going to be able to do this. The scan the previous autumn was before I knew I had cancer. I went into that one sort of numb but resolved and eager to learn that I was ok. I wasn’t nervous for the MRI, and knew I wasn’t claustrophobic, so didn’t think twice about it back then.

This time though, I wasn’t as eager. And was very concerned about finding a recurrence. For the rest of my life, I will be concerned about a recurrence. What if the MRI shows something suspicious, and I haven’t even finished treatment yet?

I feel a small ball placed into my hand – I’m told to squeeze the ball if I am in any distress, but that we might not be able to complete the scan today if I need to stop for any reason. No pressure. Nope. None at all.

Headphones are put over my ears as the tech says, “It will be very loud, even with these headphones on; and the table will vibrate, this is all normal.”

The table is moved into the tube and I felt the closeness of the space around me. My arms are back and along the side of my torso, and they begin to feel a bit squeezed in the tube. Still worried I might not be able to breathe, I’m about to move my head to try to get some space between the mask and my nose when the technician tells me I need to remain still now and to not move until they remove me from the tube.

Too late to adjust. I wonder how mentally strong I need to be in order to will myself to stay still.

It starts. Loud clicks and buzzes and sirens and bangs. Over and over and over again. I’m not so bothered by the sounds, it’s the feeling I can’t breathe. But then there is a gust of cool air around me. Thankfully. I tell myself it’s a mountain breeze, and that I can breathe just fine.

Nope. Nope I can’t. I feel a tightness in my throat. Oh oh. I feel the weight of the ball in my hand and wonder if I need to squeeze. Can you die of suffocation in an MRI tube?

Then I felt a calmness. A felt a hand on my shoulder and I felt that I wasn’t alone. I heard in my ear, “You can breathe and you are not alone.” At that moment I knew my Grandma was with me. She came to guide and protect me through this scan.

The buzzing and the clanging and the clicking became a golden visual of horses racing up to me, surrounding me, rearing up to protect me. Charging again and again to keep me safe and keep me still. The colours gold and yellow and orange swirled around me and I was told I was not alone over and over and over again.

It brought me right back to a Reiki session I had in the days before my mastectomy. My friend Kelly gifted me with a Reiki session to help calm me, soothe me, and bring my energies into alignment before my surgery. I wasn’t worried about the recovery from surgery, I was worried about what might happen in the surgery itself.

Samantha, the Reiki master, led me on a vivid mediation and I went into the surgery knowing that I was not going to be alone and that I was protected by my ancestors and all of the warriors that had gone before me. The colours I saw in that Reiki session were also gold, orange and yellow. There were horses and hundreds of others surrounding me and lifting me up. My blood and chosen family – past, present and future.

Back in the MRI tube, I had no trouble breathing anymore. I was not alone. I was deep into a calming mediation assisted by the sounds and the vibrations.

Before the table was moved into the tube, they attached an IV to my PICC line. If you don’t have a PICC, they will outfit you with an IV so that they can administer some contrast fluid part-way through the scan. The fluid is odd. You will taste a metallic taste in your mouth, you will feel a flush of cold in your arm and then you will feel heat in your groin like you’ve just peed yourself. Don’t worry, you haven’t. It’s just a side-effect of the fluid rushing into your system. Delightful.

After the contrast is injected, there is the final half of the MRI scan. Again, I slipped into the mediation and felt calm and relaxed and most of all, felt supported and loved and not alone. The hand on my shoulder, the fresh mountain air, the galloping horses and then the image of a 2,500 tattoo I’ve been thinking of lately.

They call her the Siberian Ice Princess, or the Princess of Ukok. She was found in permafrost in the 2000’s and her burial was remarkable in that it was found largely intact. She was buried with 6 horses, 2 men, a wooden boat and was wearing silk. Something that was a sign of exceeding wealth 2,500 years ago. She was also found with many tattoos on her body. This week I read that they believe that rather than a princess, that she was a shaman, and that she died of breast cancer. For the last week, I’ve been thinking about her arm tattoo and finding an artist to tattoo it over my breast surgery scars.

While In the latter half of the MRI, I kept seeing her tattoo in rich golds and oranges, with a dark black outline and the flowering antler. I saw the stag moving.

And then I was being pulled out of the tube.

Wait! I want to go back! I was so calm and relaxed by the end that I was actually sorry it was over.

I felt sluggish and strange as a different technician helped me get up and tie my gown back up. Like I’d been swimming deep below the surface and I came up too fast.

Until the next MRI…

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