When I was a kid, my mom and I would go on long walks with friends every Saturday in the Sierra Nevadas near Yosemite and often go camping. Or we would take road trips together to visit old friends in a different part of California, about 8 hours away from where we lived. We enjoyed these periods of time where we could hang out and just relax.
Fast forward to today, and it’s always a treat when my mom, who lives 1800 miles away, comes into town for a visit. These mommy-daughter visits typically include nice lunches, walks around the hike-and-bike trail with the dogs, and time spent with my kids, husband, and friends.
But 2-3 times a year over the past four years, we’ve lined up our mommy-daughter “vacations” at MD Anderson for our respective cancer checkups, scheduling our CT scans back-to-back and spending a few days in Houston. We’re both blessed to be on relatively uneventful survivorship paths. Yes, we get together for fun trips as well, but the steady drumbeat of cancer checkups seems to dominate our visits.
The MD Anderson Experience
We just returned from our latest four-day cancer checkups at MD Anderson, touching base on my mom’s adventure with follicular lymphoma and my adventure with non-mucinous colonic-type appendiceal adenocarcinoma.
Despite its monstrous footprint, MDA is surprisingly efficient. The trains were running on-time for every test and appointment. MDA is focused on improving the patient experience and it shows – all of the wait times were 30 minutes or less. Yes!
We criss-crossed the complex to our respective tests and appointments. It made for a very nutty vacation. We met up for lunch, compared notes and talked about what test was next and where to meet afterwards.
At the end of each day, we headed back to our hotel room to relax, nap or collapse, depending on how the day went. The Jesse H. Jones Rotary House International Hotel is very convenient as it is connected to the two main M.D. Anderson buildings (Mays Clinic and the Main Building) by skybridges. Getting to early morning appointments and back from end-of-day appointments is less stressful and hurried. Walking back for a quick nap or to chill between tests is easy.
The CT scans are definitely not my favorite part of the “vacation.” My mild allergic rash to the iodine in the CT contrast dye has been worsening over the past few years so this time I had to pre-medicate with prednisone at designated intervals beginning the day before. Then 30 minutes before the CT scans, I get a dose of IV Benadryl. Within minutes, the Benadryl-driven wooziness brings on a nice little nap before my turn in the scanner. Even with all that pre-medication, my body wasn’t happy and I still developed an allergic rash. The official word from my doctor is no more CT scans since my sensitivity to the dye is increasing. I’m fine with that approach since I don’t want my future cancer checkup vacations to incorporate an emergency dose of epinephrine in case of anaphylactic shock. Not my definition of a good time.
So at my next checkup, I will be trying to catch some ZZZs in a MRI scanner instead. The loud thump-thump-brrrrrr-thump-brrrrrr-brrrrrr banging and vibration sounds of the machine tend to make a nap difficult. But after a while, the noise is almost hypnotic and musical. If you listen close enough, you can pick out the rhythm and tune. The New York Times explains why MRI machines make so much noise. Gradient coils, pulses of electricity, a very strong magnetic field (60,000 times the strength of the earth’s magnetic field), and tissue reactions are all involved. Hey, at least I’m not allergic to the gadolinium contrast dye.
The night before our last doctor appointments to get “the news,” I was scrolling through the hotel channels and came across the movie “Happy Feet.” My mom and I both paused and watched for a moment, soaking in the music and silliness. We started laughing and laughing, practically crying out loud but couldn’t turn it off. This is when I knew we were mentally fried! But the next day, we both went to see our doctors and we were overjoyed that the news was positive for both of us. Both of us are stable and no treatment needed. “NED” (no evidence of disease) is still my best friend after having my appendiceal adenocarcinoma wiped out five years ago. It made for a good three-hour car ride home back to Austin. About the NED thing… I learned early on that oncologists never say the words “cancer-free,” since all of us have some bits of cancerous cells at any time that are kept in-check by our immune system.
I can’t fully explain the feeling of relief after an “all-clear” visit. During and right after treatment, I used to have a good dose of “scanxiety” for weeks before these checkups, not knowing what was going to show up and possibly ruin my NED state. But with each visit, the scanxiety has faded now to a very tolerable level. After this good checkup, I can focus once again on the year ahead and push back the ever-present cancer cloud of worry until the next checkup when a little blip of scanxiety will rise again. The small amount of stress beforehand is worth it when I hear the words “no evidence of disease.”
Speaking of relief, I reached my 5-year cancer survivor milestone (measured from date of suspicious mass on CT) this past February 5, 2015 and am almost at my 6-year survivor cancerversary in a just a few more months. On November 30, 2015, I can celebrate my 5-year NED anniversary as measured from my big surgery at MDA when the second tumor was removed and all biopsies were clean. I like to call November 30 my new birthday.
We definitely had a good mommy-daughter cancer checkup vacation. And I’m glad we’ve both moved to annual check-ups instead of every six months (mom) and ten months (me).
Mom, I’m looking forward to spending time with you on more fun-filled, adventurous and stress-free vacations this year!