Melanie Forstall

@melanie-forstall | contributor
Melanie Forstall is a mother, teacher, and writer who has faced Thyroid Cancer and continues managing its ongoing affects. Her motto for life is, “Be thankful because it could ALWAYS be worse!”

The 3 Gifts My Father Gave Me After My Thyroidectomy

At the age of 41, I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer and faced a complete thyroidectomy followed by radioactive iodine treatment. It’s a well-known cliché that cancer changes you, but during the time immediately after surgery, coupled with a few well-selected gifts, my life’s perspective was turned completely on end. In a good way. While I was in surgery, my father purchased a few gifts for me. I’m sure the wait alone is brutal and the thought of milling around the hospital gift shop is a welcomed alternative. When I woke from surgery there was a white gift bag at my bedside. The bag contained three items: a square, a stone and a scarf. A Square It was a flat, squared-shaped magnet, colored white and aqua that read, “Cancer Sucks. That Is All.” Nothing speaks a greater truth. No matter where in your body or what kind, cancer completely sucks. It shakes your foundation and unsettles your soul. It can be a logistical nightmare. Whether it’s insurance and co-pays or it’s child care andhousehold help. Managing the changes that occur when faced with cancer can be overwhelming. It is expensive. It’s scary. While I have no control over what cancer is or does, I can control the way I react to it or the way I deal with it. Sometimes, anyway. Some days I say this to myself and it helps; I mean it and believe it. Other days I laugh and laugh at myself, saying instead, what-the-fuck-ever; this shit sucks. Either way, it’s OK. A Stone It was a polished white oval with gold script lettering that read, “Celebrate Life.” I have found there is no better way to do this than to sing at the top of my lungs while alone in my car. I found so much joy singing recently that tears actually ran down my face. I don’t know if it’s because I loved the song so much or if I was so incredibly thankful I didn’t lose my voice after surgery. When faced with the possibility of losing it, having a voice really is something to celebrate. I could have also been just really excited to have some alone time in my car! To celebrate life, I’ve started saying “yes” to a lot more, especially to the things that bring me joy, and “no” to things that don’t. Yes to staying up late, yes to new shoes, yes to cookies for breakfast, and yes to TV binges, both for me and the kids. All of which is OK. Life really is beautiful, and so much of it is worth celebrating. As much as cancer does totally suck, it could be always be so much worse. A Scarf There were actually two scarves, one hot pink and one aqua. We had planned a beach vacation prior to my diagnosis and were leaving 10 days after surgery. My surgeon gave me the OK to go but only if I made sure the incision was always completely covered,protected from sun and water. I cannot think of a better way to accessorize a bathing suit in the middle of the summer than with a scarf. I was nervous about the trip for a multitude of reasons, but despite my worries, I found burying your feet in the sand really does have therapeutic properties. Walking along the surf is often exactly what the doctor ordered. Laughing with your family is incredibly good for the soul. Watching your daughter conquer a skim board is the icing on the cake! Or in this case, the cream on the pie. I had a slice of key lime pie twice a day, every day, which I do believe had a positive effect on my overall healing. ( Our Lady of Emotional Eating, pray for us.) I wore those scarves every day. There is no doubt people thought I was strange. Picture it: black and white mod one piece, large brim black hat, and a hot pink scarf. If that isn’t the image of a high maintenance weirdo, I don’t know what is. But truthfully, evenif I had one single shit to spare, I still would not have given it. I wore those scarves with pride and let my flag fly. If people want to judge me, they may go right ahead and do so. Besides, on any given day of my life I’d rather be weird than judgmental. So be weird. That’s OK, too. I discovered  days can be very much like the beach waves – some good, some not so great, some perfect. The important thing isn’t so much the quality of the day but that the water is continually flowing. The best thing I can do is to give myself space to feel however or whatever I feel on any given day. An exercise in peace and patience. Either way, good days or bad, it’s OK. These three gifts turned out to be a true reflection about life. We are all going to have times that suck. There may be days, weeks or months that suck, and it may be really awful, but no matter what, hold on to the promise that it can get better. Remember there is always something to celebrate. Even the tiniest, smallest thing can be celebrated. Sing in the car. Laugh with your kids. Buy yourself the shoes. Have a cookie for breakfast. Let your freak flag fly. Be you. Be the best you, you can be no matter what. All of it is so totally and completely OK. Follow this journey on Entering Motherhood. Getty image by mangpor_2004 We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here .

What It's Like Being on the Other Side of the Phone Call About Cancer

“I just want to know. I can handle it, whatever the outcome. I just want to know. The waiting is the hardest part.” Once my biopsy was taken, I must have said these words to everyone I spoke with. I thought with certainty that if only I had the answer, if only I knew what the test results were, then somehow everything would be OK. If I only knew my fate, then I would somehow be in control. My wait was unusually long. It was summer, so the normal wait time for biopsy results was coupled with my doctor’s beach vacation. It was an epic exercise in peace and patience. From 1:09 p.m. on June 9 until 11:43 a.m. on June 20 I was a walking, talking version of Schrödinger’s cat. Might be, might not be. All I desperately wanted was to be on the other side of the phone call. I was sure that no matter what the doctor said, I would be totally fine, knowing I finally had an answer. The wait was brutal. The call finally came and while I certainly didn’t like the answer, at least I had one. I knew. My life was now all encompassed by the 99 percent certainty of eight, pap-stained direct smears interpreted by a pathologist. I knew I was facing thyroid cancer. I had an answer, but to my dismay, I didn’t feel any better. While technically my wait for results was over, I was now faced with an entirely new wait; an entirely new sense of uncertainty. There I sat on the other side of the call I so desperately wanted, and yet I felt less certain, less secure, and less at peace. Suddenly, ignorance really was bliss! I remember during the days of waiting for biopsy results, having a sense of self-control, being able to limit my wandering brain. Since I did not have any definitive information, I was able to keep myself from an unhelpful trip down a scary rabbit hole of “what-ifs.” However, once I knew I had cancer, I was completely unable to keep myself from a dizzying head-first spiral into anxious uncertainty. What if he gave me the wrong results? What if this is all a laboratory mistake? What if my surgeon doesn’t think I’m a nice person? What if he damages my voice box during surgery? How will I be able to tell my children that I love them? I cannot live not being able to talk to my children. What if surgery is not enough? What if it’s in my lymph nodes? I was on the other side of the phone call, where I desperately wanted to be, and yet I was still waiting. I was waiting to no longer feel afraid. I was waiting to get more answers. I was waiting to feel secure. I was waiting to feel like there was solid ground under my feet. That I was no longer tethered to the clouds trying to function like a normal person while dangling from the sky. I was finally sitting right where I had longed to be and truth is, it still sucked. The wait never really goes away; you just end up waiting for different things. Control is a falsehood. I know it’s terribly cliché, but cancer really does change you. Of course, physically I am different, and what was once acute is now chronic, and affects me in a multitude of ways. A new normal for the rest of my life. Emotionally though, the one thing that is solidified in my mind is the sense of uncertainty. Nothing is certain. There are zero guarantees in life. No one is promised tomorrow. At some level I’m sure we are all aware of this, but I would argue that most of us prefer to ignore it, or at least not think about it too much. Who in their right mind wants to think today is the last day? (Hint: No one.) When faced with cancer, or any life-altering illness, in many ways you are forced to face this reality. Suddenly, you have to find balance living your life within such uncertain circumstances. How can one be expected to live at peace in such a preciously unstable existence? It’s a true paradox because on one hand it’s an almost unfathomable concept and truly takes my breath away, and yet on the other hand, there is no alternative. When times are uncertain, I have found it helpful to focus on the things that do make me feel secure; the things that do tether me. Surrounding myself with friends and family, people who I enjoy being around is always helpful. For a while I would find myself staring obsessively at my children, and while it would totally creep them out, it made me laugh and that’s all that mattered. Laughter is important. When times are uncertain, find ways to laugh. Surround yourself with humor. Today, I do more of what makes me happy and less of what people think I should do. I’ve given up on perfectionism, especially when it comes to me. When faced with fearful, uncertain times, it’s possible to make mistakes along the way. I know for sure if there were real take-backs, I owe a few. Self-forgiveness is so important. The universe knows how human we are and eventually we all breakdown during a shit show. Mistakes happen, but so does self-forgiveness. Life offers an unsettling lack of permanence. But that doesn’t mean it can’t still be beautiful and peaceful. I thought certainty would come with a phone call and was wrong. The scary truth is, I never had certainty in the first place. We can rail against it, hammering away trying to create a sense of certainty, or we can embrace the uncertainty and instead search for peace and joy in each day that we do have. We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here . Getty Images photo via oatawa

Cancer Turned Me Into the 'Free Spirit' I Never Knew I Needed to Be

Cancer changes you. It’s sometimes a cheesy cliché, but I can attest to you the statement is every bit true. I’ve changed in several ways, physically and emotionally, but I was most surprised to find that of all things, cancer helped me calm the fuck down. It was during a physical exam with my gynecologist when I heard her say, “I feel something.” I had switched doctors and finally felt like I was in the right hands. Clearly I was, because up until this point, not a single OB-GYN had ever touched me above the shoulders. Rarely, if ever had any of them touched me anywhere except the obvious pink parts. This exam was different. She started behind my ears doing a very thorough check of my lymph nodes, then headed down both sides of my neck. I felt her palpate the right side of neck, move to another spot, and return to the right side. She returned to that one spot three times before she made the announcement she felt something. A week later I had an ultra sound, two weeks after that I had a biopsy, two more weeks later received the news that I had thyroid cancer. Papillary thyroid carcinoma to be exact. I had surgery to remove the entire thyroid followed by in-patient radiation treatment. Now I am different. Physically, I am different. I no longer own the organ that produces a necessary hormone that regulates my metabolism, heart function, body temperature, and more. I no longer can tolerate heat, my hair has changed, I have indigestion, my period is wildly irregular. I take a synthetic version of thyroid hormone, and while so far so-so good, I’d be lying if I wasn’t waiting for the rest of my organs to figure it out and stage a full-scale rebellion. (Fingers crossed.) Mentally, I am different. I used to be sharp. I’d say I was pretty damn sharp. I could remember anything and everything down to the exact detail of an interaction including where we were and more likely than not I could recall what everyone involved was wearing. Professionally I could site sources, references, and recall all of the necessary information to support my opinion. I remembered dates, places, and times. I always had an answer. I was always quick to answer. I rarely needed to think about thinking. I was always thinking. If I saw you coming, I remembered our last encounter and quickly followed up. “How’s the whatever going?” “Hey, what happened to the situation?” “Did you ever find out about thus-and-such?” I remembered everything. I had a hyper sense of with-it-ness that didn’t diminish even after 13 years of marriage and two children. I felt a keen sense of awareness that, unbeknownst to me at the time, was a total drag. Now, I admit I am knocking on the door of 43-years-old, which could have something to do with the changes I have experienced. I’ve also had way more general anesthesia in the last year and a half that a human probably should. I would argue, though, that the physical changes I’ve gone through have had a direct impact on my brain because it no longer works the way it used to. When I first noticed the changes, I panicked. I was out in the world, doing normal world things when I suddenly felt like I had to think about what I was actually doing; almost as though my auto pilot was malfunctioning. I noticed I didn’t immediately have an answer to one of my student’s questions. I wasn’t totally sure of what I wasn’t sure of. I didn’t immediately remember the last conversation I had with a friend at morning drop-off. Once we started talking, it all came rushing back, but it wasn’t right there in my mind ready for the follow-up about it. I felt anxious. Nervous. Cautious in all of my interactions. I would tread lightly in hopes of not getting caught not knowing. Suddenly I felt a constant need to be “on guard” in an effort to keep myself prepped and ready for anything I might encounter. I was forcing my brain to work twice as hard in an effort to keep the world from seeing that I didn’t have it all together. I was keeping a frantic pace that wasn’t helping me in any way. All the work I was doing trying to make my outward appearance seem unfazed by what I had been through was wreaking havoc on my soul. It was exhausting. Then summer happened. For a host of reasons, this was the best summer on record for my family. I was forced to let go of things — like really, really let go — and it was a total game changer. I let go and the world did not stop. I let go and no one died in some tragic fashion. I let go and my life still carried on just with a lost less stress. I let go and let life happen. I let my new life happen and to my surprise, it was everything I needed. I remember less. It’s a fact of my current life. Thankfully I haven’t forgotten anything major like a child or report for work, but generally I remember less. I don’t usually recall where we were the last time we talked, or exactly what topics we covered, but if you are willing to catch me up, I’m totally on board. The surprise benefit to this is my conversations are now more authentic and genuinely seeded in the moment; less a production tied to what happened before. I say what’s on my mind and how I feel at the moment; not necessarily what I think I should say. I feel less pressure to have the answers; which is a blessing because the truth is, I never had the answers to begin with. I have good hunches, firm beliefs and opinions, but not answers. I feel less pressure to always know what to say. I feel more willing to give myself time to find what’s possibly a better response. I have more compassion for my kids, who always seem to need more time. I’m less hurried. I feel free to take up whatever space and time I need, and that feeling is fabulous. I confidently show the world the parts of me that are incomplete, uncertain and sometimes need help. Whether it’s an emotional change resulting from the fear of all that cancer is or if my brain is physically different, either way I am no longer the same person. As a result of the surgery and treatment, I know have the neck of an 85-year-old chicken, which is pretty humbling, too. But, it took cancer to turn me into the free spirit that I never realized how much I actually needed to be, so I’ll take it. Read more on her blog, Melanie Forstall: Stories of  Life, Love, and Mothering. This post was originally published on Scary Mommy. We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here . Thinkstock photo by Dziggyfoto