Totally Tubular

Since my cancer diagnosis, I’ve spent a lot of time in various kinds of tubes. MRI tubes, CT tubes, bone scan tubes. Before cancer, I’d never experienced any of these tubes, and I’ve recently realized that folks may not know what these scans entail, and the differences between them. Let’s discuss, shall we?

All of the tube scans require you to lay very, very still in an enclosed space. So, if you’re claustrophobic and you get diagnosed with cancer, well, you’re basically fucked. And if you wiggle too much during any of the scans I’m describing, the results are gonna be bad, bad enough that you may have to redo portions of the scan. Which means more time in a tube. Luckily for me, I’m not claustrophobic, and also, I’m very very good and laying still. Ask me to run a marathon and I’m hosed, but being lazy? Now THAT is my skill set. I get complimented each scan on how well I did at not moving.

My favorite thing about tube scans is the warmed blankets. Because they want you holding still, they don’t want you too cold, because then you’d be shivering, and that’s no good. So, they have blankets kept in a warmer, and they’ll give you as many of them as you want. I wish I had a blanket warmer in my house, because warmed blankets are truly one of the only perks of having all these damn scans.

Each of the tube scans is a little different, so let’s take them one at a time. 

First off, there’s the MRI. An MRI is a very very very loud machine that uses magnets to scan you. When I say loud, we’re talking ear plugs plus big earphones to protect your hearing. You can actually hear the machine running from the next room, despite heavy doors and thick walls around it. Because an MRI uses magnets, you can’t wear any metal at all, including your wedding rings, and in fact, some MRI places I’ve been use a metal detector on you (like a hand-held one) before you go in the room, to make sure you didn’t accidentally forget about some metal you’re wearing. MRIs take lots of pictures that are, like, slices of you, like, the pictures are layer upon layer, if that makes sense. 

I’ve had both breast MRIs and brain MRIs. The breast one invlovles laying on your stomach and dropping your boobs into holes in this, like, contraption thing so they can hang down and have clear pictures taken. The brain one involves having your head strapped into a contraption like you see in the picture below, so your head doesn’t move at all. My MRIs have all come with an IV, because they take some pictures, and then they give you a contrast that makes abnormal stuff turn up clearer on your scan.

Usually when I’m in an MRI machine, they offer to let me listen to music, and I always ask for Sinatra. Something about Old Blue Eyes just makes me feel happy. I think every MRI place in Seattle must use the same music service, because the first song they play is always Fly Me to the Moon. I always lay there thinking “I’d like to be in Acapulco right now.” Sometimes the machine is so loud, I really can’t hear the music, which bums me out.

Next up: the CT. A CT also takes pictures in slices like an MRI, and it’s better at seeing bone stuff than an MRI is. MRIs are great at seeing soft tissue, but they’re just not as versitile as a CT. From the patient standpoint, a CT has the benefit over an MRI of being a pretty quiet machine, but it comes with a major downside: you have to fast before it, which is why I always try to schedule mine first thing in the morning. Also, you have to drink this stuff.

I don’t really know what’s in there, but I’ve yet to find a flavor of it where I’m like “Yum, that was delicious!” I hear the mochachino flavor isn’t bad, but alas, I’m usually subjected to some “fruit” flavor. If you’ve had a diabetes test, like a gestational diabetes screening during pregnancy, and had to drink some fruity sugar crap for it, this tastes less horrible to me, but still not good. I tend to chug mine, so I don’t have to taste them for too long. CT scans also come with an IV, because they inject you with contrast stuff partway through, similar to the MRI experience. The machine looks pretty similar to an MRI machine.

Then there’s the PET CT. The CT part is the same as I just described, but the PET part makes it extra special. In a PET scan, you’re injected with some seriousy radioactive stuff that attaches to certain types of cells–sugar cells, cancer cells, and muscle cells that are all worked up. Because all we really want to see with a PET scan is the cancer cells, they have you not only fast before your scan, but also make sure your last meal is very low in carbs, so there isn’t much sugar in your system. In addition, before you have your exam, they give you Valium and leave you in a quiet room with some of those lovely heated blankets for an hour or so, so your muscles are super relaxed. No cell phones, no TV, no music, no nothing–just a soothing picture on the wall (the place I usualy go has one room with a sunrise, and one room with Mt. Rainier), a comfortable recliner, and your thoughts. I always, ALWAYS, fall asleep in that room, even though I’m a horrible napper. Valium is a hell of a drug.

Then, when you’re super calm, they put you in a tube, and the scan is pretty much the same experience as an ordinary CT scan, just a bit longer because they’re doing both a PET and a CT in the same session. Because of the long time you have to relax before the scan, and then how long the scan takes, and the fast you had to do before hand, I’m usually RAVENOUS when a PET CT is over. It’s become a tradition for me to have a giant Red Robin burger after a PET CT.

And finally, there’s the bone scan. Bone scans are used to see abnormalities in your bones, and in the cancer world, that means finding tumors in/on your bones. I had one when I was going through my initial diagnostic period. To me, the bone scan was the most bizarre of all the scans. They give you something radioactive, and then you hang out for a bit, and then they put you in the bone scan machine, which looks like this:

See that big flat piece sticking out? Well, in my bone scan, that thing was like 2 inches away from my face as the scan started, and it sloooooowwwwwllly moved down along my body. They did one scan straight on, and one scan sideways like you see in the picture. I have a friend that the thing almost smashed her feet when she got scanned one time. Thankfully, the techs who did mine were paying better attention. 

So, that’s what tube scans are like in cancerland. If you’ve got questions, feel free to ask them in comments!