Tuesday, April 2, 2024

Keep Looking for the Good, Especially Here

Have you heard of Chinese water torture? An Italian/Chinese psychologist first wrote about this in the 15th century, explaining how a dripping machine would erratically send very cold water onto subjects’ scalps and foreheads over an extended period of time. After a while, those being tortured would mentally deteriorate so fearful of the next drop. This is often how cancer feels. 

I’m currently writing from Utah, missing my family in Idaho because I’ll spend the next few days near the cancer center in another state. I undergo brain imaging every six weeks and get cancer treatments every month. This week I’ll also get a bone infusion—which (to me) is almost as bad as radiation. But what hurts more than anything is time away from my husband and kids. 

Today, before a 60-minute MRI to monitor a certain brain mass (as well as necrosis), I shook on the MRI table. “It’s all begun to feel like too much,” I whispered, but I don’t think the tech heard me. He’d just seen how I quivered like debris at the end of an especially harrowing storm.

“Are you all right?” he asked.

“I used to be brave,” I said. “Before all of this… Before terminal cancer I was different.” But on days like today, it feels like too much. Unless people have been through it themselves, they don’t fully understand. And sometimes, as the person undergoing treatments, it’s easy to lose sight of what makes the bad times better.

“Don’t be embarrassed.” He looked at me with such kindness. “You’re worried because you’re claustrophobic?”

That wasn’t all of it, but… “Yes. I’m claustrophobic.” 

“Over half of the people who come in here are claustrophobic.”

“Are you?” I asked. “You’ve had an MRI?”

“I went in a machine once for training. The tube pushed my arms into my sides, and I hated the mirror on the face cage. You’ve had brain MRIs before, so you know that mirror I’m talking about?”

“Yes. The mirror is the worst!”

“I would’ve preferred just looking at the tube’s ceiling!” he said, and we both broke out laughing. 

Despite previous fears, I’d stopped shaking. It just felt nice being validated by someone who understood. “Can you do me a big favor?” I asked, and the young man quickly agreed. “An hour in that tiny tunnel is a long time. Can you tell me something you’ve learned from working with cancer patients—something I can think about in the machine?” I’ve gotten so philosophical that all I seem to do is think. 

I hate admitting how being alone with my thoughts—especially in MRIs—has become laborious. Or how I’ve talked with several counselors about mortality but even that has become my own brand of Chinese water torture.

“I just finished school. I’m officially a magnetic resonance imaging technologist!” the man gushed, prying me from my thoughts. “I’ve learned so much from cancer patients that now I just want to help them. These MRIs save lives, and now I’m helping save lives too.”

I couldn’t help smiling.

“I think most of us want a chance to help other people. This is my way of doing that.”

“Congratulations. That is so incredible!”

And when I went into the machine and after, I thought about Joel’s words and how he just wants to help people. I guess that really is the gist of what most people want to do with their lives... Simply help.

So, as I prepare for two more days at the cancer center in Utah, it seems a little bit less grueling. I’ve felt myself smiling broadly at strangers in the elevator, and I’ve even started up cheerful conversations with everyone unfortunate enough to cross my path.

Sure my cancer journey might feel like Chinese water torture at times, but “hell” could actually be heaven if you just escaped from the desert. So, it’s all perspective again, and I just need to keep looking for the good, especially here.

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