Poked and prodded: dealing with lung cancer tests and procedures

The first six weeks after a lung cancer diagnosis are a grueling battery of tests and procedures. You may have any or most of the following within a very short time: bronchoscopy, biopsy, CT scan, PET scan, brain MRI, port insertion, radiation, lung surgery, chemotherapy infusion. All these have to be scheduled alongside consults with oncologists and surgeons, possibly even two or three of each.

I’m not going to lie: It’s miserable. Most of these procedures and tests have to be done before you can even begin actual treatment, so if you already have symptoms from your lung cancer, they aren’t improving yet. You may be coughing, short of breath, weak, tired, and/or experiencing pain. Your doctors may be prescribing steroids to manage your symptoms in the short term, which can interfere with your sleep and change your moods.

Some tests and procedures require special preparation: no food or fluids after midnight before most procedures, no food or fluids 2 hours before a CT scan. Some start early in the morning, at a hospital far from home. Some, like a port insertion, require anesthesia; others, like a PET scan, involve a lot of waiting and holding still. I tend to get migraines, and many procedures create the perfect migraine storm: sleep deprivation, stress, no coffee, no breakfast and reduced hydration mean that I often wake up from anesthesia with a throbbing head. 

A few things help. I usually have anti-anxiety and migraine medication at home, and when I had my port inserted the doctor approved my taking a small dose of anti-anxiety medication the morning of the procedure. I’ve also learned to always ask my partner to pack my migraine medication, and to ask the nurses if I can take it immediately after waking up from anesthesia. (The nurses have to ask the doctor before they can give an answer, so my partner makes sure to ask the question early.) I also ask my partner to have food and water ready for the moment I am allowed to eat and drink, often something very mild and soothing, like a milkshake or smoothie.

For a PET scan, you have to lie still in one place for a long time and it’s boring, but I’ve heard that some facilities allow you to bring in your own music CDs or audiobooks, and can play them for you during the scan. If you think this might help you, ask if it’s possible. I’m fortunate not to be particularly claustrophobic, so that aspect of PET scans and MRIs does not especially bother me, but if you are at all claustrophobic, let the techs know so that they can be as supportive as possible.

Every time I have a test or procedure, I try to find something, however small, that I can control, or at least be assertive about. At first this was totally unconscious, but as my treatment progressed, it became quite conscious and intentional. Sometimes it’s bringing my own anti-anxiety and migraine medications, and getting approval from the doctors to take them before or after a procedure. Sometimes it’s as simple as staking out the one seat in the waiting area that’s near an outlet where I can charge my phone. I even appreciate it when I have to drink contrast for a CT scan and I have a choice of flavors, or a choice between room temperature and cold. When so much is out of my control, it makes me feel much better to be in control of something — even if it is very, very small.

About Irene Elizabeth (Beth!) Stroud

Queer suburban mom, graduate student, lung cancer survivor, card-carrying United Methodist.
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