Cancer Lesson #13: There are good veins, and there are bad veins.

Cancer Lesson #13: There are good veins, and there are bad veins. (See Cancer Lesson #8)

I have bad veins, a point that was brought home both literally and figuratively when I went for my MRI. My blood vessels are hard to locate and skinny, with a tendency to roll and blow when poked with a needle. These are not positive traits for a cancer patient, whose primary job seems to being pierced with sharp objects.

In the past, nurses dealt with this problem by using little needles, but an MRI uses a contrast dye, which has to flow at a certain rate. This meant a bigger needle.

It took a total of five tries made by three different nurses to find a vein that would work.

By that time, I was nearly crying. Already bruised from a blood draw earlier that week – one that had only taken two tries – and overwrought from fasting since midnight, I couldn’t hide the tears.

Plus, the bone scan supposedly scheduled to follow the MRI hadn’t been properly entered in the appointment database. I was told I’d have to come back for it.

All I could think was, “I’ll have to go through this again for the bone scan,” and “How will I ever get through chemo?”

I left the hospital that day with garish bruises wallpapering the inside of both elbows. By that point, I was glad to have something to show for my suffering.

My worries were for nothing. The bone scan turned out to be a non-event. The Engineer came along to hold my hand, but it was a small needle, one jab, no problem. And, in defense of my medical team, the bone scan appointment mix-up was the only scheduling problem I ever had to deal with.

     Needles are a necessary part of cancer treatment so I learned how to deal with my lousy veins.

     If you discover yourself in a similar situation, here are some things that worked for me.

1. Don’t play coy. If someone asks if you’re an “easy stick,” tell the truth. You may want to volunteer this information even if they don’t ask.

2.There are some people in the medical profession who are particularly skilled at drawing blood.  Don’t be afraid to volunteer to wait for that person. When I went for my MRI, the nurses actually got someone from another department to stick me, and she was the one who finally succeeded. (Side note: Chemo nurses are usually brilliant with a needle, so this becomes less of an issue during chemotherapy.)

3. Exhale as the needle goes in. I read this in an article long before I got cancer, and looked it up again today. On the National Library of Medicine’s website, there are details of a study that seems to support this theory. Sixty children used two methods of distraction during catheter insertions. One group blew bubbles through a bubble pipe; the other performed a simple breathing exercise. Both groups exhibited less behavioral pain symptoms. (Details here: It’s probably good I didn’t read this before my treatment. The nurses would have been treated to a bubble-thon instead of just my huffing and puffing like I was in labor.

4. Hold someone’s hand. Anyone’s will do in a pinch, I suppose, but my husband or daughter accompanied me to every appointment that involved needles. What can I say? They love me. You have people who love you too. Ask for their hand if you think it might help.

5. If you require chemotherapy and are offered the option, consider getting a port.  Even though both inserting and removing the device involved minor surgery, I found it was a good choice for me.

6. You can also get for a prescription for numbing cream, similar to the stuff dentists sometimes use. Our insurance refused to cover the cost, but I got it anyway. My oncologist told me later there’s an over-the-counter version that was probably cheaper. Ask about it if you think it might help.

Disclaimer: I am a librarian, not a member of the medical profession. Believe me when I say the world is a better place for me having made that career choice. In writing these lessons, I am merely sharing what I learned from having cancer. As I’ve said before, my most important Cancer Lesson was learning that everyone’s experience is different. Only you and your doctors can decide what’s right for you. 

Cancer Lesson #11: “That sounds like something you would do.”

Cancer Lesson #11: “That sounds like something you would do.”

Such was my husband’s reply when I asked him what he really thought about my diagnosis.

“What? Are you blaming me for getting cancer?” Surely he was joking.

He wasn’t. But neither had he meant his words the way they sounded.

What he’d been trying to say – in a somewhat roundabout manner – was he thought I could handle it.  Because I had been the one to give birth, the one who’d had Lasik surgery to correct her vision, the one who had gone through more dental surgeries than I – or our insurance companies – care to remember.

“You’ve been through all that,” he concluded. “I couldn’t have done it. You can handle this.”

Well, I thought, that’s okay then.

Still, even after the explanation, his reaction took me by surprise.

I never realized he thought I was that strong.

Two years later, I’ve come to the conclusion – along with several friends who are also cancer survivors – that husbands seem to take the news hardest.

In my case, The Engineer had finally encountered something he couldn’t fix. I think now that he was a more shaken than he let on. Just how shaken I wouldn’t discover until much later.

My daughter was more obviously upset. Furthermore, she was upset about being upset because she thought she needed to be strong for me.

And I was worried about her worrying about me because I knew I would be fine.

The point is, most people won’t know how to respond to your news. Since you have the dubious advantage of being the patient, you may have to give them some clues about what will and will not help you.

Cancer Lesson #9: Genes can be (and are) patented.

Cancer Lesson #9: Genes can be (and are) patented.

I learned this lesson from the geneticist at my hospital. It seems Myriad Genetics holds the patent to the BRCA genes because Myriad Genetics isolated BRCA1, BRCA2 and several other cancer-related genes.

Thus, anyone who wants to find out if they carry BRCA1 or BRCA2 has their blood sent to the Myriad Labs for analysis. No other lab in the country is licensed to perform the procedure.

The test is not cheap. A recent Huffington Post article ( gives the cost as $3,440.

Still, many women, including myself, choose to have the test performed. (I was lucky. Our insurance covered the bulk of the cost.) Knowing whether or not you carry the gene can have a vast impact on your course of treatment. The results can also warn family members of the need for extra vigilance.

Myriad isn’t the only company to own the rights to genes. The same Huffington Post article says the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has granted patents on more than 4,000 genes.

I still find this hard to believe. Yes, the world we live in is a mercenary one, and money can serve as a powerful motivator driving research forward. It’s only fitting that profit should be reaped from the money poured into research work. But patenting genes just doesn’t seem right.

I’m not the only one who believes this. Recently the ACLU and the Public Patent Foundation brought suit against Myriad, arguing that genes are naturally occurring substances and therefore can’t be patented. Their supporters include the American Medical Association, the March of Dimes and other scientists. In Myriad’s corner are the Biotechnology Industry Organization and several other industry groups.

The suit has reached the Supreme Court and will be decided this summer. Their decision could affect all of us.

Cancer Lesson #7: Cancer is expensive.

Cancer Lesson #7: Cancer is expensive, even with insurance.

Expenses add up quickly with the cost of mileage and parking, plus co-pays for every appointment, consultation and test. How lucky I was that this diagnosis was merely an unexpected burden on our family budget. Imagine facing such a situation, in which nearly every other variable is uncertain, knowing only that your family’s financial future is about to be destroyed.

It must be almost unbearable.