Saturday, 15 August 2009

Second-guessing the medics – updated

1990 - I’m having an ultrasound on my right eye at Moorfields. I am anxious, but not overly so because the symptoms I’ve been experiencing are the same as those I had seven years ago and I’m expecting ultimately to be told the problem will go away and to get used to the weird green patch in my field of vision because they can’t do anything for me. The ultrasound operator is very talkative and we chat happily for a few minutes while she strokes my eyelid this way and that with the probe. And then she goes silent. I subliminally register the change, but shrug it off. I know she’s seen something because, in the course of the angiogram I had a couple of weeks earlier, the doctor called out to a colleague to ‘come and see this lesion!’ It turns out I have a retinal melanoma.

1999 - I’m having a mammogram arranged by the consultant I saw the previous evening. I’ve never had a mammogram before and it’s agony because I have small breasts and they don’t fit between the plates. The technician struggles with my body, gets her hand squashed, one of my breasts even pops out of the machine halfway through a picture being taken. It is a thoroughly humiliating – and excruciating – experience. Then it’s over and I’m asked to sit on a chair and wait. I sit there, breathless, holding my injured chest, angry that I have to be put through this torture when the consultant more or less said it was some benign problem. The technician comes out of the other room and says she should be having her lunch break now and has to go and fetch her colleague. She comes back with someone else who, when she’s seen the pictures, says that some of them are not clear because the other technician is fairly new and didn’t operate the machine correctly. I get a bit distressed, and even angrier, but do not think there is anything sinister. The experts at the Marsden deliver their verdict the next day: cancer in both breasts – except they were wrong.

2009 – A few weeks ago, I’m lying perfectly still in an MRI room (there is something incongruous in having such a sophisticated test in the basement of an 18th-century house in Harley Street, but I can’t see the humour of it at this point); my head is squashed between two chunks of foam and the machine is making a deafening sound. Still, I’m OK: I’m not in a tube and not feeling claustrophobic – much. The technician told me before the scan started that it would take approximately 15 minutes, but I’ve already heard her say, ‘the next one is eight minutes’, then, ‘the next one is four minutes’ several times and I know it’s taking a lot longer than it should. And then it dawns on me that they are not looking for damage to my cervical vertebrae, but for a tumour on my spinal cord. When it’s over – 45 minutes later – and I query the time it took, she says, ‘We took some extra shots because you’ve had a melanoma,’ and I know I guessed right. Results: no tumour or nerve compression.

The moral of the story? You can’t rely on your instinct when it comes to such tests – just as well sometimes.

Where we at, then? (You can tell I’ve been watching The Wire, can’t you?) Well, no one knows why I’m having the symptoms that have been bothering me, but they’ve discovered I have osteoporosis in my spine (the MRI didn’t show that, by the way), which may or may not be responsible. Some big frightening words have been mentioned, but they don’t bear thinking – or talking – about right now so it’s a question of waiting and seeing if some calcium will do the trick.

Update (18/10/09): So, after waiting over two hours at the hospital and being weighed in public (ugh!), I was told (thanks to a clever computer program that any GP could probably master and thus save everyone a lot of time) that I wasn’t suffering from osteoporosis after all. That is, I do have osteoporosis, but no more than any other woman of my age and I don't require any specific treatment. Just need to be careful not to fall over too often.

That was the good news; the bad news is that osteoporosis is obviously not the cause of my symptoms… I wish it were.