10 Lessons I Learned After Having Thyroid Cancer as a Young Adult
A couple of months after my 21st birthday, I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer.
Just returning from studying abroad and readying for my senior year of college, the news was nothing short of shocking (read story here). Plans to write my thesis, connect with my dear friends and explore my next steps in life throughout my senior year were all derailed by the words, “The tumor is malignant.”
Before that day, I am not sure I even knew thyroid cancer existed. Since then, the small, but mighty butterfly-like organ I lost to cancer has significantly, and in the end positively, impacted my life.
As it is now September, which happens to be the month I was diagnosed, as well as National Thyroid Cancer Awareness Month, I often ponder what I wish I had known before my diagnosis. Many of the lessons I personally garnered from thyroid cancer only became clear to me slowly over decades.
When I look back on navigating cancer as a young adult, acknowledging that hindsight is 20/20, I wish I known, or been told, these 10 lessons I eventually learned from thyroid cancer.
Lesson 1: There is no right or wrong way to do cancer.
Society tells us having a smile on our face no matter what we are going through is paramount to well-being. While positivity and optimism may make trauma feel more controlled in the short-term, ignoring sadness, fear, worry and anxiety can create a build-up of more hurt to face in the long run. Feeling all the feels is fundamental for long-term healing. There is no emotional hierarchy that prizes any one response to a crisis over another.
Initially, I skipped to the optimism and bright side of my thyroid cancer. I denied myself the opportunity to feel through the pain and full range of emotions that were brewing after my diagnosis. This approach helped me to push through surgery, treatment and recovery, but all of the trapped emotions later came through in other ways to haunt me. Even after I was back into my normal life, PTSD, panic attacks and chronic migraines became regular fixtures in my life. I was constantly reminded there were feelings within me begging for a voice.
I learned the hard way that all of our emotions need to be faced and processed in order to fully and wholly move through a traumatic event, such as cancer. I know now when anything challenging happens, acknowledging the fear, worry and anger is as important as tapping into the hope, optimism and trust. Recognizing the full spectrum of human emotion allows me to work through difficult experiences without remaining stuck in them.
Lesson 2: I am my own best advocate.
There is more than one way to heal, and I have learned to do my research and ask questions.
There have certainly been times in my journey when there was only one option for treatment, but there have been other moments when it was appropriate to take the time to explore other paths. Having an open mind and looking into options can be empowering.
Over time, I have personally found Eastern and Western approaches to wellness have worked well for me. Speaking up to incorporate both into my health program has been beneficial.
Looking back on my health care decisions, there were a few times I wish I would have taken the time to do more research before making life-impacting choices. Now, I have found my well-being hinges on asking sometimes uncomfortable questions, seeking answers, advocating for myself, and remembering I am ultimately in charge of my every experience.
Lesson 3: My body is my greatest teacher.
After my thyroid cancer diagnosis, I looked to others for answers about my health and well-being. I felt helpless and out of control. In the midst of the flurry of decisions and physical changes, I forgot that within myself, I have my own compass and guidebook.
When navigating a traumatic experience like cancer, there are timely decisions to be made and external input offered. It can be nothing short of overwhelming. Over the years, I have developed diverse ways to create the quiet I need in order to listen to my own inner knowing. I meditate. I take walks by myself. I clean my house and organize. I do whatever I need to establish a hospitable environment to listen to my own voice. When I sit in the silence, I tap into my own ability to make decisions that work for me and my body.
No doubt there are times when I know to defer to my doctor or other medical professionals to lead the way. I have also determined in the wake of my thyroid cancer and prophylactic double mastectomy, I need to listen to my own wisdom.
Lesson 4: Asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness.
I grew up believing “holding it together” and “doing it all” denote success and strength. While these modes of being might work in certain context, they can be counterproductive when we are going through difficult times and need additional support. I learned over the years refusing to ask for help when I was sick and physically weak often led to greater physical exhaustion. I felt more isolated and lonely.
People close to us want to help when they see us going through challenging life events, like cancer, but often they do not know what to do and how to help. Asking for what I need is a powerful means to make things easier for myself physically, promoting healing and well-being. Reaching out to others also facilitates connection and support with friends, family and colleagues.
When I have refused to step into the vulnerability and humility needed to ask for help, I have experienced physical setbacks when recovering from various surgeries. Putting aside my pride and realizing the mutual benefits in calling in support have been powerful realizations I continue to embrace.
Lesson 5: Own my “no” and be mindful of my “yes.”
Time is a precious commodity, especially when one’s energy is limited during recovery from an illness. I have (somewhat painfully) discovered the most efficient way to manage my time and energy expenditure is to be mindful of what I commit to in the first place. Specifically, I have learned the hard way through cancer, and in life in general, is that over-committing is a one-way ticket to exhaustion and stress.
Once I was finally healthy after years of post-cancer and PTSD-related illnesses, I wanted to do everything to prove how well I was. However, this approach to life landed me back in bed, overtired and unwell.
A key strategy to long-term health and well-being for me has been to take the time to consider carefully every single potential commitment. I only say “yes” to the activities, people, parties, travel and even food that support my wellness. Certainly, as parents, family members, community members, etc., we have commitments that are obligatory. However, when we start paying attention to how often we automatically say “yes” to things we do not want to do and then stress about those commitments until they happen, we realize there is room to simplify and create a different pattern.
A polite “No, thank you” has become one of my most powerful wellness tools to eliminate stress, create more free time and provide room for engagements that do support my well-being to come into my life.
Lesson 6: You do you. I’ll do me.
My long journey with my health has taught me honesty is fundamental to well-being.
When I withhold my thoughts and feelings, I put my health at risk. The path to wellness and freedom for me has centered around deep self-inquiry, followed by external and internal action when needed, to create a more congruent pattern of being. I have had to learn to do things others may not always understand or support. If I orient myself around my strongest beliefs, I know I am supporting my wellness.
I no longer judge other people’s response to what I need to do for myself, and don’t allow others to keep me from voicing what I need. I support others in doing the same, and welcome friends, family and colleagues to prioritize their personal accountability and wellness in our interactions. As is evidenced with the focus of the Last Cut project, which was born from my personal experiences, speaking the truth has become a way of life for me.
Lesson 7: Fall in love with yourself in every form.
The myriad ways my body has changed since my thyroid cancer diagnosis 21 years ago have been nothing short of dramatic.
I have since had six major surgeries, including preventively removing my breasts due to the BRCA1+ mutation, having reconstruction and then removing my implants to go flat. Every change has required an adjustment period, but in time, what I have embraced is beauty is a state of mind that comes from making peace within myself.
Embodying and working with my differences has become a place of play and exploration. I have learned to own my scars and see them not as markings of loss, but pages of my story. I no longer seek to be like everyone around me, but savor the parts of me that are uniquely my own.
Lesson 8: Laugh. Find joy. Be silly.
I remember finding Comedy Central on the hospital TV during my first hospital stay after my thyroidectomy. One of the nurses on duty told me studies have shown laughter quickens healing. While I have not studied the science behind this statement, and often immediately after a surgery, laughter can be terribly painful, I have lived its sentiments.
When heavy, challenging moments are happening in our lives, defaulting to seriousness all the time is easy. Allowing for joy and silliness can offer needed levity and pause from the emotional and physical pain.
During the months after my thyroidectomy when I was healing and in between radiation treatments, I found joy in reading, watching movies I had missed and music. Later when I was dealing with PTSD-induced, chronic panic attacks and migraines, my stepdad, who was undergoing treatment for multiple myeloma in the same period, and I would watch bad TV together. We would make jokes about silly plots and cheesy music. Those momentary reprieves did not take away from the fact we were both battling illnesses.
They did provide needed joy, a means for connection and soulful healing.
Lesson 9: I control what I can.
When my health has taken hits, I have felt completely out of control. The truth is, most things in life are somewhat out of my control. There are always so many different forces at play. However, there are ways I generate some ongoing stability in my life.
I have discovered what I need to eat, how I need to exercise, how much sleep I need and what pace works well for my optimal wellness. I am very disciplined when it comes to the basic ways I take care of myself, as this structure ultimately provides the experience of greater freedom. I am constantly checking in with myself and learning more about health and wellness, so I can feel my best and show up fully for all I wish to do.
Lesson 10: My cancer does not define me, but how I live my life does.
This life is mine to live. It may be short, or it may be long. However long I have to live the life I have been given, it is mine for the making.
So, I am now committed to living a life that feels like my own. I work to quiet the voices within and around me, and make decisions that make my life one I love. I have created a life that allows me to recognize myself in the mirror.