No one tells you MRIs are *that* loud

I am claustrophobic. Not can’t-breathe-in-lifts claustrophobic but just enough that I can panic in small spaces. Of all the pre-treatment tasks, my MRI was the one I was least looking forward to, and I feel totally vindicated after experiencing it!

The magnets used in an MRI are stronger than the earth’s magnetic field. You run through forms, twice, to ensure there is not a single piece of metal in or on your body. Any magnetic metal that is there, would be pulled from your person.

There are big warning signs all over the department. The door to the MRI room looks like it should sit in-front of a bank vault.

None of these eased my trepidation.

My MRI was worse than your MRI

Keith has, of course, had an MRI. He was helpful in telling me the room is large - it is - the Radiographer talks to you throughout - only once. You’re fully dressed - I had to strip to only my pants - you just lie back - nope - and close your eyes. As I have breast cancer, I don’t lie back, I have to lie on my front, face down, the entire time.

For claustrophobia context, before we got married I had three sunbeds (first and last time), to get a bit of a tan for my very low cut dress. I cannot use the stand up ones. I use the beds but leave the lid half open, so that I can stick an ankle out slightly and don’t feel confined.

Phobias are irrational, or learned responses. So, when lying inside, my thoughts began to focus on the tube. I was suddenly aware that the top of the tube was only inches from my back. That I couldn’t sit up. That I couldn’t escape. That the tube felt as if it was getting smaller. Within minutes I had to summon all of my focus, take control of my thoughts, and work hard to stay the fuck inside.

To ease the panic I wrote this blog post in my head. As soon as I got out, I cried, and I wrote up my blog notes in my phone. The first note says:


I can be a bit dramatic.

Boob MRI’s are a bit different

In order to get the perfect MRI visual of breast cancer you have to lie face down, boobs in two holes, hips in a specific place. Your arms must be behind you, but facing slightly upwards so that the cannula feeding radioactive Gadolinium into your vein doesn’t fail. You must hold onto the plastic tubing administering the drug in your right hand, so that it doesn’t get tangled as you slide inside the tube. In your left hand, you hold the stress ball, which you squeeze if you start to panic and need out.

My biggest challenge throughout, was slowing the rising panic. My heart rate was up high enough that I could feel every thumping beat. My jaw was clenched tight enough that it began to ache and I had to forcibly relax it.

Our friend Iain (hospital Orthopaedic physio), told me that I could hit the panic button at any time and I’d get to escape. But, if I did, they’d have to start that scan from scratch. So all in all, hitting the panic button would only make the whole experience longer.

I told myself this on repeat to control my wild thoughts.

Summoning some thought control

I am an easy overthinker. It’s a bad habit. It’s also why I really enjoy the book Invisible Power. In a nutshell you need to control your thoughts in life, and I was channelling the first chapters, hard. Despite this, insane niggles crept in:

  • I was sure I could feel my day old filling beginning to warm slightly. (They are not magnetic, it wasn’t)

  • My newly tattooed right eyebrow began to tingle and get a little warm. (This was real, tattoos have a metal compound in them!)

  • I was convinced, at one point, that I could feel the magnet moving things inside me. (100% in my head, I think)

  • I could feel the magnets moving my hospital gown. (Nope, just the fabric moving in the slight breeze the machine blows all over you).

One of our lovely clients, WeeSeeds, is a mindfulness app for kids. I spent a lot of time looking at the content as we built the toolbox for Christina. I began to think of the Singing Bell and Pause Button illustrations to refocus my breathing and stop the rising panic.

I used tricks for 3 year olds, and it worked!

The Noise

If I had one request, it’s that they somehow change the noise an MRI makes, to something a lot less scary.

Because, it’s horrible.

They are so loud that you wear ear plugs, tucked into your ears, and then a pair of ear defenders over the top. The latter are there to ensure the ear plugs don’t fall out and that you’re not deafened by this one scan. They also play an Abba compilation album, very faintly. Just loud enough that you can hear it as the Radiographer leaves the room. But so low that it’s completely drowned out by your scan as soon as they hit ‘Go’.

MRIs take a selection of different images, and as a result it makes lots of different noises: the tractor engine noise, the pneumatic drill right beside your head noise, the high-pitched horror two-tone alarm noise that eventually becomes one singular droning ringing in your ears, it’s so loud for so long. The whole machine also vibrates with each new scan, sometimes all over, sometimes only your feet, or shoulders.

I wonder how many of my medical team have actually experienced an MRI. It should be part of everyone’s training, if only to stop people telling you it’s easy when really, it’s tough.

The other problem with an MRI, which both Keith and I agree on, is it gives you a moment to focus on the fact you’re having a scan. That you have cancer. That this whole process utterly sucks.

Until that rising panic creeps back in and you have something more fun to focus on!

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