Wednesday, September 6, 2006

First Post-Treatment Scans

I had my first post-chemo, post-radiation scans today to see if there’s any cancer left. I’m all clear. I had a chest X-ray to check the lungs and an abdominal ultrasound to check the liver. In 6 months, I’ll have a PET-CT scan to check lungs, lymph nodes, adrenal glands, and liver, plus a bone scan to check the bones. This next round of scans is more thorough, but they can’t do it too frequently because these scans expose me to more radiation. The X-Ray exposure is so little it’s negligible, the doctor said, but the PET-CT and bone scans expose me to quite a bit more radiation. That’s why she’s going to alternate the two sets of tests every 6 months so my exposure to each will only be once a year.

I’d read that 40% of the time that breast cancer spreads, it spreads to the brain. My doctor says that’s not quite right. She says spread, or metastasis, to bone, liver, lung are more common than brain, but for HER2 + patients like me, there’s a 10-20% chance of relapse in the brain as the first site of metastasis. That’s why doctors don’t scan the brain regularly. But she says if I want, I can have an MRI periodically. She also said I need to go to an OB/GYN at least every 9 months. I think that’s a bit lax, actually. From what I’ve read of the risk of ovarian cancer for breast cancer survivors, plus the fact that I had a cyst in my ovaries in one of my earlier scans, I should go get checked at least every 6 months, maybe even every 3 months.

I don’t want to be a hypochondriac, but given the advanced stage of my cancer I don’t want to take any chances. If I’d been MORE of a hypochondriac when I first felt the lump, I’d have a much higher chance of survival right now. That’s a mistake I’ll have to live with. I wouldn’t mind living with that for a very, very long time.

I’m relieved that my scans were clear. But I’m also aware that scans don’t show everything. My PET-CT scan after the first 3 cycles of chemo showed no sign of cancer in my body. My doctor said I was in “complete remission”. I was elated and amazed at the effectiveness of the chemo. Then I had surgery and the tissue they removed turned out to have cancer in it after all. Very microscopic cells, but there they were. If they’d been left in, they’d have spread and I’d have a recurrence. If that’s what “complete remission” means, it’s not entirely reassuring.

It’s frustrating that these scans that costs thousands of dollars, expose you to dangerous levels of radiation, and look and feel downright scary actually can’t tell you for certain that you’re cancer-free. They couldn’t even pick up a lump in my neck that a doctor could feel with his hands. Sometimes I wonder if I should just skip the scans, give my body a break from all that radiation, and just hope for the best. What if I’m actually INCREASING my risk of secondary cancer with all this radiation exposure? I’m certainly not at a loss for things to worry about.

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