The Big C and Me: My Experience With Papillary Thyroid Cancer
I’ve always despised having to go to the doctor.
For one, I’m terrified of needles and the sight of my own blood makes me squirm. Nothing good would come out of me going to the doctor again, so in my teenage angst I swore off them for good.
My mom, on the other hand, didn’t share my sentiment, so in the fall of my senior year of high school she dragged me to a new doctor. This doctor was very thorough and unfortunately for me, her thoroughness included drawing vials upon vials of blood.
When I went back for the results a few weeks later, she revealed something concerning my thyroid was a bit off. She also explained whenever an abnormality like this was detected in a patient, she’d send them for a thyroid ultrasound.
Now, I didn’t even know what a thyroid was prior to this, so I trusted her judgment and got it done. When I was called in for those results, the news wasn’t great, but it wasn’t bad either. There was a solid lump on the lower left side of my thyroid.
The good news was the majority of people have lumps on their thyroid that end up being harmless. The bad news was it was still a lump.
The suggestion was we monitor it closely and check back again in a few months. I tried my best to put it at the back of my mind until the time came for the second ultrasound. However, I had a feeling something wasn’t right, and the second ultrasound just confirmed it.
The lump had apparently grown, which did warrant some concern from the doctor. This prompted her to refer me to an endocrinologist to have a biopsy done, while at the same time she reassured me it was most likely nothing.
The endocrinologist did the same, referring to a statistic there was a “less than a five percent chance” this lump was cancerous. The biopsy would require him to stick needles into my neck four times to get four different samples.
I was now in my sophomore year of college, in the midst of completing final papers and preparing for exams. I tried my best not to let on, but I had the eerie feeling again. I had the feeling something was wrong and found myself crying involuntarily in the days and weeks leading up to the biopsy.
Although the procedure itself wasn’t as painful as it was uncomfortable, I knew the wait was what was going to kill me. I waited five days for the results and when they did come in, I was confronted with my worst fear. I had cancer— stage 1 papillary thyroid cancer. But cancer nonetheless.
I was shocked. I’d always heard about people being diagnosed with cancer and empathized with them, but never did I think I would be diagnosed myself. I didn’t know what to do so I had a good cry, went to bed then got up and went to class the next morning.
The next few weeks were a whirlwind. Two days before Christmas I met with the surgeon and three weeks later I was scheduled for surgery. I would be having a total thyroidectomy and a neck dissection to check for potentially cancerous lymph nodes.
There were so many times following my diagnosis the words, “If you were to ever have cancer, this is the best one to have,” were uttered to me by my doctors. However, as you can imagine, they provided little comfort.
I was scheduled to begin my spring semester two weeks after my surgery, but I didn’t know how long my recovery would take. After much debate with myself, I reluctantly pulled out of all of my classes and decided to take the semester off. It was a decision that would set me back a bit from my methodically planned-out academic future, but you know what they say: “The best laid plans of mice and men…”
As the day of my surgery approached, I found myself unusually calm, which was a welcome change from the nervous wreck I usually am. I didn’t cry profusely or panic going into the operating room, that is, until after the surgery when the pain meds started to wear off. It was a side of myself I didn’t know I possessed; it showed me I could be brave when I needed to be.
The surgery went off without a hitch, thanks to the skill of my surgeon and entire medical team. After a night of monitoring at the hospital, I was out into the world and on my way again. Ice cream and Jell-O were my best friends for a while since it hurt to swallow anything hard. My neck pillow also played a pivotal role in my recovery, as it enabled me to sit back and watch Netflix for hours with ease.
About six weeks later I was no longer in pain and discomfort and feeling back to my normal self.
Compared to some other thyroid cancer patients, my plight was relatively minor. The type I had was slow-growing and the tumor was small. I didn’t require chemo or radiation, as the subsequent pathology report showed the cancer was only confined to my thyroid. Surgery was my only treatment, in addition to now having to be on thyroid hormone replacement medication for the rest of my life.
Now, nearly three years later, I do sometimes find myself dwelling on my diagnosis and how I went about treating it from time to time. This is especially when I’m on Google — perhaps against my better judgement — and there are articles that suggest aggressive treatment of small thyroid tumors may be more of a financial burden than a medical one.
However, I’ve realized I could sit all day and second-guess whether or not I should have had the surgery, but that wouldn’t change the fact early detection might have potentially saved my life. My doctors, nor I, had the ability predict the future behavior of my disease. By the same token, I didn’t want to have to spend the rest of my life wondering if there was cancer growing inside of me.
This is why I don’t regret it.
Sometimes I still find myself in disbelief this has all actually happened to me. The journey ahead, which includes being dependent on medication for survival, as well as follow-up blood work and scans, is something I still can’t quite wrap my head around. It’s a new normal I didn’t think I’d ever have to face, especially not beginning in my twenties.
However, I’ve learned to take the bad with the good and I count myself lucky. Things could have been so much worse for me and they weren’t, which is why I’m taking this experience in stride and not letting it eat me up. It’s changed my perspective on so many things.
Before the surgery, the scar on my neck was something I dreaded. However, today I embrace it. It’s a reminder I came through a difficult time and I’m capable of tackling more tough times as I continue to move forward in life.
Setbacks don’t mean defeat; their purpose is even bigger than that. They could be catalysts for growth and self-discovery.
For more information on the role the thyroid plays in the body and on thyroid cancer (including symptoms and support for the newly diagnosed), you can visit http://www.thyca.org and http://www.cancer.org/cancer/thyroidcancer/.
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Thinkstock photo by ksuklein