These Past Two Years Facing Papillary Thyroid Cancer Have Been Rough
These past two years have been rough.
In 2015, I was getting sick every month with a sinus infection, taking antibiotics all the time and becoming immune to most of them. I went to an ear, nose and throat doctor and he said I had a deviated septum and large turbinates that needed to be shaved.
After the surgery I wasn’t getting sick anymore, but the indicating lymph node that was always enlarged when I kept getting the sinus infections hadn’t disappeared. I asked my primary doctor what that was and she ran blood work on it. She said nothing came back negative, so I asked her what was next?
I was told I had to get an ultrasound, so as soon as I did that I immediately got a phone call saying I needed to get a biopsy. All these immediate appointments made me nervous, but I had no idea what was to be expected.
As soon as my biopsy was completed, my doctor called me the next morning. Her exact words were, “Can you come into the office with a parent?”
I was 22 at the time, and have never come in with a parent before. As a matter of fact, my primary doctor had never met my mom until that day, August 19, 2016. As soon as I heard those words, I told her yes, hung up and immediately started crying.
Thankfully, when I was on the phone call my boyfriend was right by side. I called my mom crying. She was already at work for the day, but I asked if she could come with me to the doctor’s office as soon as possible. My mom, always the calming force, said she’ll be there in 30 minutes.
We arrived and sat in the exam room and the doctor walked in, sat down, and just said it (there’s never a good way to deliver bad news): “Your biopsy came back positive as papillary thyroid cancer.”
Instantly I broke into tears. Absolutely crushed. Cancer? What does this all mean?
My doctor tried to answer as many questions as we had, but being in shock, there weren’t too many. She gave me a name for a local surgeon and we were on our way. We left the office and went straight home.
My mom, being “the researcher” she is, instantly looked up everything she could. I, on the other hand, read one thing: “This procedure can effect your vocal chords.” I exited out of the website, broke out into tears and refused to look up anything else.
See, I have been singing ever since I was a baby. I would hum tunes to myself as an infant, to fall asleep, and I joined any singing event I could throughout my grade school career. Reading that was torture.
Before I managed to completely stop reading, one thing I read was, “If you get thyroid cancer, that’s the cancer to have.”
Having experienced everything I went through, I’m here to tell you absolutely no cancer is a cancer to have. Cancer changes your life, and it puts you in a mood no one who hasn’t been diagnosed can understand. Your life is put on pause. All you worry about is what’s next in this journey ahead of you.
When I was diagnosed, I had been working at The Boys and Girls Club. A coworker of mine had explained the wonderful story of the Japanese tradition of 1,000 cranes. For those who don’t know, an ancient Japanese legend promises anyone who folds a 1,000 origami cranes a wish granted by the gods. Some stories believe you are granted happiness and eternal good luck (instead of just one wish), such as long life or recovery from illness or injury.
I worked in the art room, so I was in charge of creating and leading classes for middle school and high school kids. I was very open with my kids and told them I needed surgery to remove my cancer. We made a goal chart to reach 1,000 cranes before my surgery date.
My surgery date changed three times and my kids were all able to help me reach my goal of making 1,000 cranes. I strung them and hung them from my ceiling until I had to leave to begin this unexpected journey.
My surgery date was slowly approaching, and nothing could have prepared me for the journey that was about to begin. I was the first one on the schedule to get my surgery done. They had allotted six hours (which they thought that was going to be plenty of time) for my procedure.
In most cases, thyroid cancer patients need their thyroids taken out with a small incision in the middle of their neck. In other cases, such as mine, I needed my thyroid taken out and all the lymph nodes removed because the cancer had spread. That meant an incision going from the center of my neck, following the base of my neck to the clavicle.
My surgery ended up taking six-and-a-half hours to complete. After coming out of surgery my parents were told I had very “unique anatomy,” so they called in certain specialists during the procedure to make sure they were doing the absolute best for me. They had to leave a drain in to collect the fluid that was collecting in the wrong spot. Apparently I have a “large thoracic duct.”
When you are told about the procedure, they tell you to expect two to three days in the hospital. But since I’m so “unique” I stayed 11 days. The drain they put in was outputting two liters of fluid a day, and while I was losing that, they were inputting two liters of saline water to subsidize for that.
Doctors orders made me unable to eat since I had liters of fluid exiting my body through the drain for five days. I was only able to have food through IVs until I had to have a feeding tube put up into my nose and down my throat.
My surgery was on a Wednesday, and as soon as my procedure was over, my surgeon left on a business trip to go to a conference with all the best head and neck surgeons. She called my parents and explained how she did not want to leave and she was so sorry, but she has a great team watching everything I’m going through and she’d check in every day.
She had discussed my story with all of her colleagues while at the conference, and all of them came up with a solution. My case was so “unique” she had not seen anything like it in all the years she’s been doing this. My surgeon cared so deeply for me that as soon as she flew in Sunday night, she went home to feed her dogs, left and came to check on me.
Once Monday came around they had a master plan to have the intervention radiology department help in this situation (which had never been done before on a thyroid patient). Monday night they took me in to get ready for the procedure. At 4:30 p.m. I started prepping and by 5 p.m. they wheeled me in for a procedure that should only take two-and-a-half hours.
Six-and-a-half hours later the procedure was done. I woke up in shock. I was in the recovery room before I was wheeled back up to my room and I saw what time it was and instantly freaked out. No one was in the room with me and it was something like 11 p.m. What day was it? Where is everyone? When one of the nurses came in, I asked where my parents were and she told me they’re waiting for you in your room and I’d be wheeled up shortly.
The leak was gone! I had been getting bubbles of fluid near my neck where the drain wasn’t able to get rid of the fluid and they weren’t coming back. A procedure like that was so crucial to helping me through this terrible time.
Those five days of not knowing what’s next were miserable. I struggle with anxiety and had to take a sedative before the initial procedure and after coming out of surgery being in major pain and only receiving pain meds that didn’t work was making my panic attacks heighten and made any little thing unbearable.
The IVs were not my friend — they kept stopping because so many things were going through them and my right arm had nothing available. No veins were showing, and they would put one in and it would hurt so bad because they weren’t getting them in completely. But after getting the feeding tube it made it much easier for me because they were able to change the IVs into oral medication through my feeding tube and I was finally IV-free!
The hospital let me go home, but I had to keep my drain in just in case. After 11 days I was able to introduce real food into my everyday routine, even though it was a very strict diet.
When I met with the surgeon for the post-op and to see if I could finally take the drain out, I was told there were still microscopic cells that could make the cancer come back. That meant I needed to do a radioactive iodine treatment to get as much of the cancer completely out.
Learning about this treatment I thought I was going to be “unique” with this one for sure. And to my belief, I was. Although, in this case, it was to my advantage. Radioactive iodine was a pill I had to take and go into isolation for three to five days. Twenty-four hours later I was released because the level of radiation was gone. I was sent home and asked to stay isolated for three days in my room to be on the safe side because never in their career had they seen something like this.
On February 17, 2017 after my full body scan I was told I was cancer-free!
I am grateful for all the great resources around me. The first surgeon I met was not personable, and I felt she had no empathy towards a young girl where singing and art was her life. Nothing about her made me feel comfortable, so I told my mom I wanted to leave.
We called my sister-in-law, who is an oncologist, and she told us about my doctor, who was a complete angel sent from above. I told her the same concerns about my voice, and she told me about a monitor they can use to make sure nothing happens to the vocal chords. That instantly made me feel better.
Everything from that point on was amazing, aside from the pain and misery that comes with any surgery procedure. If we never found my doctor, the first hospital would not have had the resources she did, and she would have had to crack my chest open to find the source of the leak from my thoracic duct. My doctor and her colleague who continued with my thoracic embolization were the best.
If I could offer any advice, I would say be an advocate for your body and soul, and if you know something is wrong, you have the option to get up and go. I’m so glad I did – it brought me to the doctors and place that cured me!
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