The 'Superhuman' Predicament When You're Diagnosed With Thyroid Cancer
We all know the stories that for many of us, like me, help pull us through the hard times. The stories with headlines like, “Four-time cancer survivor climbs Mt. Everest and beats cancer again!”
Don’t get me wrong — stories of humans overcoming tremendous odds are probably some of my favorite stories to read. They are inspiring. They push me to be my best self. In fact, I enjoy stories of triumph so much I made it my personal quest to be celebrated for overcoming my own illness after I got sick.
I was diagnosed with papillary follicular variant thyroid cancer (that is radioactive iodine resistant) in October of 2013 at 29 years old. Since my cancer doesn’t respond to RAI, my treatment options have been surgery and suppression.
When I was first diagnosed I became obsessed with my diagnosis having as little impact on my life as possible. Since I was going to be stuck with this chronic cancer throughout my days, I needed some way to box it up nicely and put some control on it.
I began negotiating with my doctors before my surgeries, scans, appointments, etc. to ensure I could get back to work with as little down time as is safely possible. As a result, friends were going in to get wisdom teeth pulled and taking more time off from work than I did when I had my entire thyroid — 21 lymph nodes and part of the muscle in my neck — removed during my first surgery.
Pushing myself during each surgery and treatment felt like a win and I didn’t care if I was worn down or hurting. I was going to say how and when this cancer thing would touch my life. I was consumed with pushing myself to stay normal and even better than normal out of fear.
I feared losing my job, killing my shot at a romantic relationship and losing the support of my family and friends. I didn’t want pity. I wanted to function in society and experience the things still waiting for me in life. I wanted to be respected the way I would have been without the stigma of cancer looming over me.
I didn’t want cancer to alter my chances.
I wanted my employer or any future employers to know I was still going to work harder than anyone they could hire, and they would be fools to hire anyone over me.
I wanted my future partner to know I was going to be able to carry out a normal, happy relationship with them and my cancer wouldn’t get in the way of that.
I wanted my family and friends to know this cancer was going to make me better; I would still be a runner, I would still strive for perfection, I was still going to be me and an even better me. I would rise to the occasion to be one of those inspiring people that amaze in the face of adversity.
Basically, I needed to prove to everyone and anyone I still had value, even though I felt I was now broken, indefinitely.
This was a tall order to give to myself and has been a hard order to fill. At first, I did okay.
I missed as little work as possible during all my treatments.
I starting running half marathons and gave myself the hashtag #outrunningcancer in order to stay motivated and to motivate to others.
My friends and I put on a run/walk/stroll for thyroid cancer awareness and raised over $30,000 for THYCA while I was between surgeries.
I raced my comeback half marathon in Eugene, Oregon after teaching myself new breath control due to a partially paralyzed vocal cord from surgery.
The Eugene local paper even did a story on my comeback from young adult cancer prior to the race.
To outside eyes, I was one of those inspirational people who never let their cancer get the best of them. I smiled and told everyone I was staying positive.
But of course I had hard days, and some really hard days. I’d go through periods when I would walk home from work and climb right into bed until I had to repeat the process the next day.
I’d get depressed about the chronic part of my cancer and how I would never get to celebrate my remission.
I waited in fear after each blood draw, each scan, each time I waited on test results.
And I tried to keep the hard things to myself as much as I could.
I mean, after all the cheering I’d done about staying in control of the cancer and how fine everything was, who would want to hear that actually a lot of the time I wasn’t fine and I needed a break?
Occasionally, I’d try to express my exhaustion to family and friends, but because I looked so “normal” and had worked so hard to voice just how well I was doing with my cancer, I’d often see the disconnect when I trying to disclose that information.
I’d mention to a friend I was exhausted, to which they would tell me how tired they were. It seemed useless to explain the exhaustion sustained from a total lack of a thyroid as well as cancer creeping around in my neck, is far different than feeling tired from a busy week.
It seemed too hard to explain to my family a lot of the time I can’t get home from work and just go for a run because maybe my joints aren’t responding to painkillers that day.
I preferred to avoid the blank stares my coworkers would give me when I would try to explain I was overheating during hot summer work events because my body doesn’t have the cooling ability anymore since my thyroid is gone.
Strangers would tell me how lucky I am to be young and healthy and just wait until I get older like them because then I’m going to realize what it is like to struggle through daily tasks. It always felt too tiresome to correct them.
If only I had striven for some balance when I first got thyroid cancer. Instead, I always felt the need to prove I could throw open my button-down shirt to reveal my superhero costume before flying off to fix anything and everything without breaking a sweat.
After all, thyroid cancer is the “good cancer,” remember? Who am I to complain?
And part of me knows it is a little too late now to go back on my superhuman proclamation. Admitting there have been some cracks in my armor along the way hasn’t been very appealing. People want to hear about survivors overcoming their challenges, not about the days we can’t get up off the couch, right?
So, while I wait today for my latest lab results, maybe it is time to admit I’m not superhuman, time to admit I’m afraid, and time to admit I haven’t found a good balance with this yet.
Maybe now is the time to take off the cape.
Maybe that is OK.
Maybe I’m still OK.
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Thinkstock photo by Sergey_Nivens