Congratulations! You’ve are having the ‘gold standard’ imaging with relation to pheochromocytomas and paragangliomas. The Gallium 68, I have had many of these scans, all the way from clinical trial phase to PRRT treatment.
I figured it’s time to lay it all out so that you know exactly what to expect. I will be focusing on a practical overview of your day. I don’t know about you but – I find it helpful and comforting to be prepared. As we all know, the best way to live with cancer is to focus on what we can control.
So first, what is a gallium 68 scan and why would one have this type of imaging in comparison to let’s say… a standard CT or MRI?
There are many different types of imaging, the reason for ordering one vs the other is typically based on WHY it’s being ordered. Is it diagnostic? Prognostic? Someone who’s seeking an initial diagnosis and someone who’s living with the disease and having follow up will have different requirements.
I’ll keep this as simple as possible and focus on the Gallium 68, it’s just in order to advocate for yourself – it’s good to know the basics behind this. Structural imaging like CT and MRI are used to view the structure of the tumors, whereas functional imaging (like PET and MIBG) are used to see metabolic activity.
I know I said I’d keep it simple, we’re getting there I promise – gallium is considered the gold standard BECAUSE it combines both structural and functional imaging! How? Well, they use a PET/CT scanning machine to combine both modalities. See, they inject you with a radioactive tracer which makes them able to measure the output of hormones that the pheo/paras are producing. Then at the end of the nuclear imaging, they do a traditional CT to see the structure as well. It’s the best of both worlds, IF you’re receptive.
Not all pheo/paras are Gallium receptive, that’s why there are different types of radioactive tracers. Some pheo/paras can be gallium receptive but MIBG negative, and vice versa. Then there are the lucky bunch like me, where the tumors light up on ALL the scans. Which offers more option for treatment. Still with me?
When in the diagnostic period before surgery, it’s important to do a combination of imaging to know which radioactive tracers you are receptive to and for them to gather as much data as they can. This can later be used for followup and for someone like me with recurrence, it can be used as treatment options.
Gallium 68: what to expect
You may be experiencing some scanxiety, or maybe just type A and wondering how to prepare. Is it more than 1 day? Do you have to go back more than once? Do you have to fast? You will be pleased to hear that out of all the nuclear medicine scans – this is one of the simplest.
There’s no special eating or drinking requirements (yay!) and you do not have to go more than 1 day. Everything is all done at once, unlike the MIBG which is multiple days. From start to finish, it’s approx 3 hours. The actual imaging portion is probably about 30-45mins depending on your tumor burden and if they need repeat imaging. The short answer is no, there’s no prep for this scan. But it’s not the same for everyone, so I’m going to give you the real deal. Let’s walk through the day:
Is there side effects?
This isn’t talked about a lot, because it’s said there are no side effects or reactions when it comes to the radioactive tracer. However, there are many patients who are sensitive to any type of chemicals without it being considered an allergy. You may not go into anaphylaxis like an iodine allergy, but if you have MCAS/MCAD, your body can have a reaction. It’s also possible you can have a mast cell response but not be diagnosed, like me for the last several years. Keep reading, I’ll show you how to be as prepared as you can.
Expect the Unexpected:
If you’re someone who typically has reactions to meds or procedures, this would be a good time to discuss with your doctors taking some benadryl in advance and afterward. If you’re on steroids to manage your AI, it may be a good time to do a small updose to prep for the stress your body may endure. If you have mast cell disease, you definitely want to prep as you would for any procedure. Do as you normally would, follow your protocols.
Practical advice for meds would be to have a portable medication case with some anti nausea meds, ativan, heartburn med, an anti-inflammatory, and any medications you may have to up-dose with *I had to take an anti nausea, heartburn, and anti-inflammatory afterward*
I linked above how to prep for an MIBG scan if you have a known iodine allergy, I think it’s important to know how to prepare for ANY procedure or imaging with rare disease. Which is why I created my own ‘medical resume‘ and linked the emergency protocols for mast cells, adrenal insufficiency, and showed how to create your own. You can find it here. Feel free to share it because it can truly be life saving in certain situations – think of it as your voice when you don’t have one
How to use a medical resume:
ALWAYS show your medical resume to anyone who’s in charge of your care. It doesn’t matter if you think “oh I won’t need it, I’m just here for a simple test”. From experience, it’s normally the simplest of tests or medications that have precipitated my worst reactions and emergencies.
I bring it up calmly and mention that it’s never happened to where I’ve needed major intervention. I then explain the importance of understanding the possibility of a crisis event. I highlight where I cannot be given epinephrine because of my pheos, and I show the necessary protocols.
examples of where I’ve used my medical resume recently:
Getting vaccinated, I show it to whoever is administering the medicine
Emergency: triage nurse, ER nurse, radiology, etc
All forms of imaging where I’m receiving an injection
Let’s walk through the day:
My appt was at 12:30pm, we arrived at the nuclear imaging dept and checked in. They will ask you to change into the lovely blue gown right away and await your name to be called.
Someone from the nuclear imaging dept will come to get you, where they will bring you into a room to do your weight, height, and insert your IV. It’s at this point they will do a questionnaire about your allergies, medications you take, previous surgeries and treatments, it’s pretty detailed right down to your mensuration cycle. This is the perfect opportunity to show off your medical resume! Since it has a detailed view of all their questions they will ask. Then you can casually segway into the protocols. Easy!
It’s time to go into the radioactive haven, this is a room with comfy reclining chairs where you will get your injection. They keep the radioactive materials here, this is where you will spend most of your time. They will wrap you like a burrito with freshly warmed blankies, it’s really quite wonderful. I bring ‘gallium’ my little scan mascot. As well as my ‘hospital bag’ which is filled with goodies I’d need like my kindle, hand cream, headphones, phone charger, gum, water, etc.
Once you’re settled and the radioactive tracer has arrived, (yes, it gets shipped in specifically for YOU) they prepare the injection, flush your IV, and now administer your medicine. I’m not saying this will happen to everyone with pheo/para, but… my tumors react IMMEDIATELY as the product is injected
I get a tight, hot, squeezing pain in the middle of my chest around my sternum. The reason I mention this is because the first times it happened, I thought I was dying and it made me incredibly anxious. Now that I know it will happen, I am prepared to deep breathe through it and always have a guided meditation ready to help calm my body.
It passes pretty quickly, I’d say within 3-4 minutes. They will bring you the barium liquid to drink with some water at this point. You will have to do this more than once. Barium is a contrast agent that will help them visualize the gastrointestinal tract. It’s yucky and can taste like orange or poison berries. I was pleasantly surprised to see that my hospital updated their formula! Not only did it taste good, but I only had to drink 2 small shooters of it. Hopefully this is the case for you!
Once the barium prep is done, you will be told to empty your bladder at this point and go get scanned! This is a funny detail but it surprised me the first time too. The bathroom in the radioactive unit has a big lead door, just like all the rooms. However they often have it disabled so you can’t shut the bathroom door. They have this portable rolling door that blocks anyone from seeing you, but it’s still a peculiar setup and made me uncomfortable the first time. The discomfort has passed and I still manage to do pre-scan bathroom dance parties just fine.
Unfortunately I don’t have photos of the imaging room, because it’s quick to go in and lay down right away. They will lay you down on the narrow table, and then slide a foam support underneath your legs (make sure you ask if they don’t). They will secure your arms so that you’re not fighting to stay still and comfortable the whole time. There’s no special breathing exercises or loud noises with a gallium scan. It’s really quite relaxing and I sleep most of it. You just can’t move of course. I’d recommend closing your eyes right away, I keep them closed. However this type of imaging is very open, it’s not claustrophobic like an MRI. You could actually have someone in the room with you pre-covid days. They just have to leave the last 2 mins because of the CT scan they perform at the end.
And that’s it! They will remove your IV, and you can do your victory walk/dance. I was too tired to do a dance, so I managed a rocky walk out of the hospital. This is the end of the imaging portion but it’s not the end of your feeling like crap (lol) for lack of a better word.
When we think of after-care we think bubble baths and rest, and yes that may be some of it depending on how you feel. However it’s important to be prepared for your body’s mood swings, pain management, and a plan to recover over the next 2-3 days. These radioactive tracers they inject into us find their way to our tumors, so despite them saying we won’t react… our tumors are still filled with a substance that makes them more activated. That’s not accounting for our mast cell response either, so you may have to follow with the appropriate medication response as well. You may feel inflammation in your lymph nodes, a tightness in your neck, tension and muscle spasms may increase, and pain in the abdomen. This is how my body responds anyway, so it’s more important than ever to flush it out by hydrating hydrating hydrating some more. You may want to do some journaling, netflix binging, or anything that allows you to get that sh*t out. I’m personally writing this blog to do just that – and to help all my zebra friends, but you know whatevs.
I like to finish my day with some comfort food, but I’ll warn you – if you eat something with tyramine or histamine, don’t say I didn’t warn you. It’s not the time in my opinion to make matters worse, so if you can eat something comforting but not tumor aggravating – I’d highly recommend lol.
Don’t be like me and hulk out by throwing your quesadilla, swear crying, and then have to switch pants with your husband to get relief from the belly pain. I have now prepared you for most unexpected events. I wish you an uneventful and pain free scan!
You totally got this my zebra friend, you are prepared now and just have one job: stay fabulous!
Follow along with my social media for daily content @pheovsfabulous
This information is for educational purposes only and should not substitute the advice of your doctor(s) and medical team because they have in-depth knowledge of your medical history and current situation.
Resources to checkout: http://www.pheopara.org