Tuesday, June 7, 2011

I'm Radioactive

I went to a wedding with my mom yesterday. My dad wasn't able to be there, so I agreed to go in his place a few months ago. Why not? I love weddings! Besides, I wanted to compare her dress to mine and her flowers to mine and her band to mine, and all the other things future brides like to do.

But that was before.

As I was getting dressed, I was going over the upcoming week's activities in my head. PET scan, chemo consult, sex therapist (because I might not be able to do it anymore), brain MRI. Not really a normal schedule for a bride-to-be. I started to wonder how I would be able to look at a happy, healthy bride walking down the aisle today without losing my mind.

"You don't have to go," my mom soothed. "Everyone will understand." "No, I'll be ok," I lied. I thought about it for a minute. Even though the bride is my mom's cousin's daughter, I really didn't know her at all. Really, how emotional could I be?

My mom and I trekked into New York City and headed over to Chelsea Piers. Right before the ceremony started, the crowd filed into the ballroom to take our seats. "Let's sit in the back in case you need to leave," my mom thoughtfully suggested.

The groomsmen started the procession.


My lip started quivering without my permission and I immediately felt that annoying lump slowly starting to rise up my throat. Then I felt the tingle of tears. I looked up at the ceiling and took a few deep breaths. Ok. I'm ok, I lied to myself again. In came the bridesmaids, and the ring bearer, and the flower girl. Here comes the bride.

Shit again.

More quivering. The lump broke free from its chains and made its way to its usual place in my throat. The faucet behind my eyes started leaking. I was powerless to stop any of it. Does anyone see me? I'm ruining my make-up. Maybe it'll pass as happy tears?

No way.

I was bawling. My shoulders were heaving with each sob. I forced myself to control the audible whimpering that wanted so desperately to escape.

Mom mom saw me.

She quickly handed me a tissue and rubbed my arm. "Ok. It's ok," she whispered. Luckily, the episode only lasted a few minutes. I managed to fight back and lock up the floodgates each time they tried to break during the ceremony. But as hard as it was, yesterday's emotional drainage wouldn't even compare to what I would be up against today.

At 9:30 this morning, Jimmi and I were on our way to Sloan-Kettering, our second home. First stop, PET scan, followed by a short lunch break, then a consultation with the chemo doctor to close the visit. As directed, we arrived at 10:00 for a 10:30 appointment. I filled out the necessary paperwork for the hundredth time, then sat and waited to be called. I handed my engagement ring to Jimmi because jewelry is a no no during these tests. "Don't lose it," I instructed with a grin.

"Ms. Paragano?"

"See ya!" I kissed him goodbye and followed a man named Roger down the hall. We soon left the MRI area and entered a zone with warning signs on every door. "Caution: Radioactive Materials" I read. Finally, we stopped at a door with the same warning sign hanging on it, but this time, we went inside. After checking my height, weight, spelling of my name and date of birth, Roger showed me into a small room consisting of only a chair and a sink. Roger explained that a nurse would be in shortly to start my IV and draw blood, then he or his partner would come back to give me a dose of a radioactive isotope that would dissolve over the next hour before my scan. The isotope has a lot of sugar in it. Since cancer cells metabolize faster than normal cells, sugar will bond to them and light up. That way, the doctors can see if there are any other areas of concern. Roger also needed me to drink more of the nasty contrast dye that I had for the CAT scan a few weeks ago because it makes things easier to see.

"Before I go, I just need to make sure that there's no chance you could be pregnant." Roger looked serious. "Well, I guess there's always a chance, but they're taking my uterus out next week, so does it really matter?" I crudely joked. Roger didn't even hint at a smile. "I need a definitive yes or no before we can perform this test." "Ok. Then no, I'm not pregnant." And he was off.

A few minutes later, the nurse came in. She asked if I preferred that she use one arm over the other. I held out my right arm, "I only have one vein. It's pretty beat up, but look," I held out my left arm, "It's really the only one I've got." After careful consideration, she agreed. She wrapped the tourniquet around my right arm and started tapping on my sad, little vein. "You also have some scar tissue building up in here. It might make it even harder." Awesome. Hooray for me!

She was able to stick me without too much trouble. She drew blood and tested my sugar levels which were at 93. "What's normal?" I asked. "Between 80 and 100 is good." Yippee! Something good!! She left the IV in my arm to wait for my radioactive isotope, and then she disappeared.

Moments later, Roger's partner appeared with a very official looking lead box. He placed it carefully on the table, but didn't open it yet. Wow. This stuff must be pretty dangerous. I feel so safe and warm having them inject it into my body when they won't even carry the syringe without protection.

Roger's partner spoke, "Is there any chance you might be pregnant?" I skipped my joke this time, and went right for the "no". He then explained that I will actually be radioactive for a while after the injection. I would be given a card to carry in case I traveled anywhere today because I might set off terrorist alerts in tunnels or airports. Nice. Also, I shouldn't be around pregnant women, infants or small children for long periods of time for the rest of the day. "What about my own kids? They're 10 and 8." He thought about it. "Don't hug or kiss them, don't let them sit on your lap and don't sit next to them." It'll be fun explaining that to them. Super duper!

Then he slipped on some gloves and opened the lead box. It was like watching an action movie where the terrorist has a nuclear weapon or a chemical containing a deadly virus tucked away in a special case, and then he slowly opens it so the camera can get a glimpse. When the box was opened, all I saw was more lead. This time, it was a lead cylinder surrounded by foam padding. The tech carefully lifted the cylinder out of it's bed and exposed just a small amount of a syringe contained inside. He checked the label and slid it back into its protective holder. Then, he took the entire cylinder with the syringe inside and hooked it to the IV in my arm. Very cautiously, he emptied the contents into my vein, then quickly placed the cylinder back into its cozy cradle and closed and locked the box. "That's it?" I asked. "Yes. Now you need to wait an hour and we'll be back to get you. Be sure to drink the contrast dye while you wait."

Ok. I'm radioactive. I wonder if I'll glow in the dark? Why is it ok to be around adults, but not kids? How can they be so careful not to come into contact with the super dangerous material, but it's safe to shoot it into my body? Why do I have to do this? Why is this happening to me?

The next hour dragged on. I kept busy by texting Jimmi, who was in the waiting room with my mom, who had arrived five minutes after they took me into the room. The magazines sucked and the room was freezing. I tried not the think. I just drank my stupid red concoction from Hell and waited.

Finally it was test time.

I got on the table and was told to lie still. It was becoming routine, at this point. The bed would move every three minutes for a new angle, and in 21 minutes, I'd be done. I didn't look at the tube behind me. It's better when I don't see where I'm headed. Or maybe that's all in my mind.

The bed started to move me back and I closed my eyes. The first 10 minutes were filled with questions. I wondered what I had done to deserve this. I wondered if I'd be able to get married. I wondered how I would feel after my surgery next week. I wondered if the treatments would be as bad as I thought. I wondered what sex would be like once this is all done. Would there even be sex?


You're in a tanning bed. Yes, that's what it feels like. A tanning bed in a tanning salon. It sounds the same. It feels the same, minus the heat. Yes, I'll just pretend. I'm gonna be a bronzed beauty when I get out of here! Just relax and it'll be over soon.

"We're done. Hold still and we'll get you out of there."

It worked!

I joined my mom and Jimmi back in the waiting room at 12:15. My next appointment with the chemo doctor wasn't until 1:40, but I figured I'd check if she could take me earlier. As the doors of the elevator opened to take us to the next floor, my eyes fixed on a woman standing in front of me. She was wearing blue, latex gloves and a blue medical mask. He hair was thin and her eyes were deep. My stomach turned.

That will be me. In one month, that will be me.

The receptionist told us we could wait and see if the doctor could take us sooner, or we could go have lunch and come back at my scheduled time. Since I wasn't allowed to eat before my scan, food sounded better than a waiting room, so we headed to Panera.

There were so many babies and kids at Panera! I was scared to go near any of them for fear of hurting them with the radioactive aura surrounding me. What am I gonna do when I see my own kids?

After a quick lunch, we headed back to see Dr. Gorsky. The chemo consult was the one I feared most. Though, I'm not too sure how much worse it could get. I already know I'm gonna be puking and bald. Is there more? Maybe she'll tell me there's no way I can get married. Maybe she'll put an end to all the hope in my heart. I don't want to do this. Why do I have to do this?

I was called in at about 1:50 by a very sweet nurse named Nikki. She weighed me and took my temperature and blood pressure. We talked while she worked and I told her how nervous I was. "You'll be fine!" she assured me. "I'm getting married in three months. Will I still be fine?" She paused to think. "It's ok. You'll get there. You might become bridezilla along the way, but you'll get there." I liked her. A lot.

Nikki brought me to an exam room where Jimmi and my mom joined me. A nurse named Christine walked in to ask me some questions before the doctor arrived. As she turned, I noticed the close to 7 month pregnant bump she was carrying. "Wait! I can't be near you!" I blurted out. "Oh! You had a PET scan? Thank you for telling me!" And she quickly exited the room and found another nurse to take care of me. Wow. She's lucky I said something.

The nurse finished her questions - again with the "are you pregnant?" crap! Really, people, does it matter? Not like I'll be able to carry a baby without a uterus. It's outta there in ONE week! She left the room saying that Dr. Gorsky would be right in. That was at 2:00.

At 2:40, I started getting antsy. I texted around to make arrangements for someone else to get the kids off the bus since I'd never make it in time. Finally, at about 3:00, Dr. Gorsky came in apologizing for keeping us waiting, but she had an emergency to deal with.

She started by saying that she knows I've been over it 1000 times, but she wants to make sure she has the details correct. We went over my diagnosis and everything leading up to it. She asked if we had taken care of fertility preservation and I told her we had 12 frozen embryos. Then she explained that my cancer cells had started to invade my lymphatic system, which is really why I need chemo. "I've heard that before," I said. "But what does it mean?" "It means that your cancer has figured out how to break through barriers and walls of the blood vessels making it easier to go to other organs. This is why we don't know if any cells have gotten out and might be hiding. The chemo is just a precaution to make sure we get all the cells."

A precaution? Pretty brutal treatment for something that might not even be there, don't you think?

I would receive my chemo in conjunction with the radiation. We would wait for the radiation prep to be done, then start everything on the same day. I would be getting a combination of two medicines for my chemo treatment, Cisplatin and Etoposide. There would be a total of 3 or 4 (I can't remember) cycles consisting of three treatments per week every three weeks. The first day of each cycle will be a long one because I'll need my radiation treatment in the morning, then I'll get both chemo medications and IV fluids at the same time. I'll be there for hours. The other two day of the week will be shorter because it will only be one medication, but they'll still want to give me IV fluids and medications to combat the nausea, which I'm sure to feel.

"I hate throwing up. How do we make sure I don't?" I begged. "Well, you'll probably be ok on treatment days because we'll give you the fluids. It's days 4 and 5 of the cycle when you might be sick because you won't be here. If there's a problem, come back and we'll try to mange it. If one drug doesn't work, there's always another one."

Then she went over the other side effects. Fatigue. That will be cumulative. The longer I go, the more tired I'll get. Plus, the radiation will double it. The chemo will cause diarrhea, but so will the radiation. But the ant-nausea drugs will cause constipation. I might have tingling in my fingers and toes, my tastes will change, I might develop hearing loss, we've already mentioned the nausea and vomiting, and then there's the hair loss.

"Might I suggest that you cut your hair short? It's very traumatic for someone with such beautiful, long hair to start to lose it." You mean this entire situation hasn't been traumatic already?

"No. I wont' do it."

"It might be easier for you."

"No. I don't do short hair. Cutting it won't be any better than losing it. I'll wait until it starts to fall out and I'll deal with it then."

"Ok. Whatever you think is best. Do you have any other questions?"

"Yes...Can you please get me to my wedding?"

She paused for a breath. "I can probably get you there, but I don't know what state you'll be in." I tried anything, "Can you stagger the treatments so the start of a new cycle is right after the wedding? That way I'll be at the end of the cycle before when I actually get married, so I might be ok." "Yes, I can try to work with you on that, but your hair will be gone." "And I already ordered a wig." Next detail??

She agreed to try and work it out and suggested I come see her two weeks after my surgery to reevaluate the situation. I thanked her and we left for the day.

When I got home, the kids were here with their dad who came to relieve our babysitter who needed to leave for an exam. I thanked him for coming over and got to work getting the kids ready for an event my dad was throwing tonight.

"Listen, guys," I told them. "I can't really get too close to you today because I had a test and they made me radioactive." Dylan poked his head out from behind the shower curtain. "Will you glow in the dark?" he asked. "No, buddy. Sorry."

We finished dressing up, though I was in no mood, and off we went. We arrived and went up the stairs to a banquet room with a gorgeous view of New York City. The day was crystal clear, and we could see every building in the skyline.

But then it started.

Family members others I hadn't seen in years kept walking up to me with that sympathetic look on their faces. All of them meaning well. All of them offering support. But I didn't want to talk about it. My kids are here. I don't want to cry. I want to talk about something else. Anything else. I smiled and thanked them for their well-wishes and prayers, and I meant it. I appreciate every one of them. I just wanted a night without cancer.

My dad has always been close to a group of priests and sisters in our area who were also at the dinner tonight. I greeted them, and was instantly in the arms of Sister Chelsea who begged me to let her pray over me. I agreed, and she whisked me off to a chair in the hallway, out of the way of the crowd. She put both hands on my head and gave and emotional and heartfelt prayer asking God to take away the devils that are making me sick. When she was done, she told me she knew I would be ok. Then she said something that threw me a bit. "Your daddy told me about you and he cried. I haven't seen him cry. A man who is so strong, and he cried."

I thanked her for the prayer and started back to my table. I ran into my dad along the way. I stopped and gave him a quick hug. He was very busy working the room, so I'm not sure he even noticed, but I needed to hug him.

Daddy, I'm so sorry I made you cry.


  1. As I was reading your post some synonyms for "radioactive" came to mind. Things like "glowing", "bright", "luminous" and "warm". Suzanne, you were radioactive long before your PET scan.

    You're strong and brilliant. You can do this.

  2. i don't know if your question was answered, but the reason for all the lead is because the doctors and nurses are around the materials every day. you're taking just that dose and you see what it does. also Radioactive drugs radiate out in all directions. the lead also helps keep the right amounts of activity in the drug. I'm no doctor, but if you have any procedure or drug questions, anything i can't answer personally,i can have answered in minutes for you. be well kiddo. praying for you every day. you are just about the toughest cookie i know. there is no doubt in my mind that you can beat this! <3