I found out I had a massive cyst in my brain from a traumatic brain injury. Why was I so happy to find this out? (Task & Purpose composite image using courtesy photos from Joshua Skovlund and U.S. Army).

Soft, warm lighting and a gentle vanilla odor filled the entrance of Prenuvo’s New York City location on West 34th Street — a hop, skip, and a jump from the subway exit at Penn Station. Their location is in the busy Times Square area of Manhattan, and should you not be looking for it, easy to walk right past. 

Prenuvo is the company that HunterSeven Foundation has partnered with to provide full-body MRI scans to veterans in an attempt to catch cancer, traumatic brain injuries, gastrointestinal problems, and other issues secondary to military service in their early stages. 

As you check in, they ask what music or movie you want playing while you go through the hour-long scanning process. I couldn’t give them an answer right away because I was lost in my own thoughts about how I didn’t belong here in the first place. I had a rough time in the military, with several injuries in training before an early exit from the service. As a Ranger who never deployed, I can think of many other people who would be better suited to have the scans done ahead of me. 

It was those kinds of thoughts that led me to a dark, lonely place in my head, a path to a suicide attempt in 2012 that was thankfully interrupted by a miracle — a phone call from my parents checking up on me. If you ever wonder if a phone call to check in on your buddy actually helps, trust me, it can. 

Chelsea Simoni, the co-founder of HunterSeven, insisted that I go through the process to show other veterans that, yes, they’re worthy and deserving of potentially lifesaving preventative measures. She pointed out that it’s common for many veterans to think there are others more deserving. The simple truth of the matter is many veterans need proactive healthcare help. They are often too young to meet cancer screening criteria, and by the time their cancer is found, it’s too late. 

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I ultimately decided to go through with the process, not only to help break the stigma but also to do the right thing so my family doesn’t have to suffer through a preventable death someday.

Since starting their Immediate Needs Program in 2018, HunterSeven has spent over $300,000 connecting 207 post-9/11 veterans with cancer care and screenings. Prenuvo does the scans and offers a full report complete with images and analysis and a complimentary follow-up, with another follow-up from HunterSeven that made a big difference in helping me understand where the state of my health is at and what I can do about it. 

It’s not rare for people to have lesions, veteran or not, but they are rarely found before manifesting into cancer. HunterSeven commonly finds a range of systemic inflammation within the body, which creates a breeding environment for many types of cancers. Simoni said the scans HunterSeven has funded have detected precancerous lesions in approximately 50% of those who’ve come in for the MRI full body scan so far. Identifying these precancerous lesions is essential in the early treatment of cancer, which can be the difference between life and death.  

Knowing all of this information, especially with my background in medicine, I was scared to go back for my scan. Prenuvo staff walked me to one of the changing rooms, which had a pleasant odor, soft lighting, and creature comforts like phone chargers and books that helped calm my mind. I changed into a gown after the staff asked a range of questions about previous surgeries and if I had any metal in my body. A large metal sliver was pulled from my left eyeball several years earlier, so they had me wait while their radiologists reviewed the latest imaging of my eyes to ensure there was no metal left. 

While waiting for the radiologists to clear me, one of the staff members talked about how much she appreciates veterans. She became emotional as she told me about how she was up late the night before, talking to one of her closest friends who was struggling with a PTSD episode. Her passion for helping veterans was obvious. I thanked her for the expertise and welcoming environment they had created in their office. She enthusiastically said veterans deserve it and so much more. 

After the radiologist cleared me, anything made of metal, like my watch, was left in one of Prenuvo’s eight locked changing rooms. 

Though I don’t struggle with claustrophobia, Prenuvo offers Ativan, a sedative provided via three 0.5 mg pills. If you need that before your imaging, their pharmacist will walk you through everything you need to know about Ativan and how it makes you feel. 

The imaging tech had me lay down on the MRI bed, locked different “coils” in place that help with the imaging, and then rolled me into the machine. I was shown a button next to me, which I could push if I needed to stop the scanning at any point. The MRI technician assigned to me communicated through a two-way radio throughout the scan. 

I settled on Netflix for a distraction, choosing the movie “Bullet Train” after the tech insisted movies are generally better than just listening to music. The headphones provided paired with the audio of the movie helped dull the loud sounds of magnets in the MRI machine. 

As the scan progressed I realized the movie I picked was more graphic than I remembered, and that maybe I should have gone with something, uh, more relaxing. The tech intermittently gave breathing commands essential to the scanning process. Her check-ins with me, along with the movie, really helped keep my mind off how my large body was squished into a magnetic tube and the nagging question in my head of ‘What will they find?’ 

The tech warned me that I may feel a warm sensation toward the end of the scan. Not only did I feel that full-body warming sensation, but different parts of the scan made it feel like someone was using my guts like a bongo drum. It wasn’t a painful sensation by any means, but was unlike anything I’d felt before (this was not my first time in an MRI machine). 

My tech reassured me that it was all normal. After the scan, Prenuvo spokesperson Loretta Huang confirmed that the gut sensation I felt was likely related to the magnetic fields generated by the MRI machine, with a similar explanation for the warming sensation.  

“The hot sensation you described towards the end of the imaging may be attributed to the radiofrequency pulses used during certain sequences of the MRI scan,” Huang said. “These pulses can generate heat in the body, which some patients may perceive as a warm or hot sensation. It is totally normal to experience whole body or localized heating during an MRI.”

They use a comprehensive combination of AI-assisted MRI technology. Prenuvo does not use any contrast dyes and it’s one of the safest imaging processes available in healthcare because there’s no ionizing radiation involved. 

Once the scan was finished, I changed back into my clothes, and the staff provided snacks and a drink. You have to fast for four hours before your scans, and by the end of it, I was hungry. 

A few weeks after the scans, HunterSeven followed up with my results. They found that I have a large arachnoid cyst at the center of my brain, and they believe it is secondary to an injury to the back of my head that created a traumatic brain injury (TBI). They found many other problems, including my thoracic and lumbar spine having degenerative changes, something commonly found in veterans due to wear and tear. 

The biggest gift I’m walking away with is relief that I finally know what is wrong with me. The torment that comes from feeling like something else is in control of me or not feeling balanced on my own two feet is like a steel anchor on my psyche. 

It’s a heavy burden, and now I finally have the answers I’ve looked for despite many doctors refusing to take my symptoms seriously ever since my discharge from the military. I struggled with suicidal ideation until I went through an alternative therapy program. It’s programs like that, along with HunterSeven’s Immediate Needs Program, that have helped me feel whole again.

HunterSeven’s program will cover the cost of the scans but will also help you with follow-on steps; whether that’s assistance with supplements, appointments at specialty centers like the Atlanta, Georgia-based Shepherd’s Center, or the cost of chemoradiation. 

The VA threw many different medications at me over the years, turning me into a zombie. Now, I have a plan moving forward that will help my brain and body heal, and where that is not possible, tools to help me get through the tough times. Every veteran should receive this full body scan — it can literally be the difference between life and death. 

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