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Goodbye, Butterfly: A Thyroid Cancer Diagnosis Story

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They say the thyroid looks just like a butterfly.

A dark red, highly vascular butterfly.

I caught a butterfly once, but it wasn’t long before I had to let him go.

Learning about my thyroid was similar to watching a straight line suddenly extend wings and flitter away. Many patients discover the thyroid and its physiology for the first time before realizing some or all of it will soon be gone.

For months, I knew something was wrong. I was lethargic, losing hair, gaining weight, having difficulty swallowing, dealing with infertility, experiencing neck pain, joint pain, extreme depression, and frequent panic attacks, etc.

I have had hypothyroidism since I was 11 years old. These symptoms all pointed to another episode. I set up an appointment over one year ago and got my levels tested. They came back normal.

I scheduled a few more appointments every other month to see if anything had changed. I was surprised as the blood tests continued to come back with normal readings. The doctor noticed my thyroid was enlarged, but wasn’t concerned because the blood tests negated my concerns.

Something was wrong, but I still couldn’t prove it.

I went in a few months later to see a new doctor. I explained my history and asked if there was another way to test my thyroid. This doctor did a general check by feeling my neck. He sent me in for an ultrasound and that was when they found the nodule. It was the first feeling of validation that I knew my body was failing me. A nodule. Such a nice, little word.

I finally had an answer.

It wasn’t until my appointment with an endocrinologist that I learned the nodule was more than a cute, little bump. It was a mass. A tumor. My endocrinologist found the tumor on the left side of my neck solely by sight.

It was growing.

The biopsy was painful, but my husband was able to come with me. I do love my endocrinologist. He is Arabic and I always feel safe and understood. The nurse came to get me for the procedure. I laid down on the bed in the middle of the dark room and took a deep breath. A cold gel expelled across my neck as the technician felt around for my thyroid.

I was having fun testing out Halloween makeup when I got the call.

My appointment wasn’t supposed to be until October 30 and my mind was spinning.

Why would they be calling me so soon?

“We received the results of your biopsy early and the doctor would like to see you as soon as possible.”

The test had come back early and the doctor wanted to see me. Today. In two hours. I was home alone. My husband was at work. I knelt and said a prayer to help me get to the office without having an anxiety attack. I took a deep breath and finished getting dressed.

I drove to my doctor’s office and sat in the parking lot praying for nearly half an hour before I felt ready to enter. The nurse and I laughed about the last time I was there for my biopsy and she told me it was always a great bonding experience. I love this nurse. She is Arabic with long blonde hair and she always wears a bright pink jacket that says, “You’re awesome!” on the back.

After she took my vitals and let me take the change out of my pockets before I stepped on the scale, she told me the doctor would be in. As she turned to leave, I saw the back of her jacket again. Of course, I told her she was awesome.

Just before closing the door behind her, she turned and said, “I love that smile on your face! Keep it!”

OK, I will. I am going to smile. No matter what happens. Thank you, awesome nurse.

So there I sat. Realizing I was practicing Halloween makeup before I got the call. Bright pink lips, long black eyelashes, bright blush splotches on both cheeks, and shimmery glitter on my eyelids. What a shame. If only they had waited for me to put on my full costume before calling.

The doctor’s assistant came in next. I hadn’t met him before so he introduced himself and asked me where I got my accent. I looked at him sideways and asked where he thought I was from.

“Are you British?” He asked, “Where were you raised?”

I shook my head and said, “Boise, Idaho.”

We had a good laugh about that one before he grabbed his blue clipboard and things got serious. He explained my biopsy results.

I had cancer.

I slumped back in my chair and folded my arms, “OK! I’m not too attached to my thyroid… Well, I am literally… But let’s just say I am ready to cut it loose. What’s the plan?”

He told me he was going to invite the doctor in for that.

“Keep smiling,” he said.

Keep smiling… right. Keep smiling. I can do this.

The doctor came in and explained the results in more detail before referring me to his most trusted surgeon. Thank goodness, they like me enough to send me to a good surgeon.

My doctor laid out the game plan for getting rid of the cancer. A thyroidectomy. They are taking my thyroid out and the cancer is going with it! We won’t know the type or how far it has spread into my lymph nodes until the surgery, but they believe it was caught in time. After the thyroidectomy, I will undergo radioactive iodine therapy and thyroid hormone treatment.

My doctor surprised me when he repeated the office mantra, “Keep smiling.”

This should be my new motto! It’s not a bad one. It’s gotten me through a lot and it will get me through this.

“I will not!” I replied. It was meant as a joke.

“We are taking out your thyroid, not your smile. We would never do such a thing. It shows me you have faith and hope. Don’t lose it. In fact, after surgery, you will have two smiles!”

I let some happy tears run free and laughed.

What a mess I was.

“In that case, I will come in for my follow-up with two smiles and four eyes!”

Yes, above that second smile, I plan to draw myself a second pair of eyes.

This is not going to be a scar. It’s a second smile.

I absolutely plan to smile through this. I am not saying I am going to be happy all the time. I still get scared and sad. I am saying I am choosing happiness as often as I can. I have to let myself feel all the fear and bitterness involved with being diagnosed with cancer, but I am surrounded by wonderful people and a wonderful life.

And as frightening as thyroid cancer is, it will soon be gone. How can I not choose to be happy?

So goodbye, butterfly.

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Thinkstock photo by Pimonova

Originally published: October 30, 2017
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