One of the scariest words anyone can hear. Cancer. It makes your heart sink a little. When I was 34 years old, I almost skipped my annual exam. I had just had a check up six months earlier, but this was already on the calendar, booked at my six week postpartum appointment a year earlier.
My baby had just turned 1. She was sleeping through the night and I had weaned her. But I was still sooooo tired. The night before, I asked my husband to go in late to work so I could keep my appointment.
During the routine physical, the nurse practitioner pointed out a lump. She actually had me go look in the mirror. There was a huge lump on my neck. How had I not noticed it? Granted my showers were at lightening speed to ensure my little ones weren’t killing each other. Taking time for makeup and hair was a luxury I couldn’t afford most days. But still. There was a huge lump on my neck and I hadn’t noticed.
She was casual but firm about it. Most of the time, these were just cysts, but it could be cancer. It was one of those moments when the air leaves the room. I nodded and smiled but my heart sank in my chest. That week I had an ultra sound and biopsy. My emotions swung from completely optimistic to completely devastated.
Nora was not quite 3 1/2 and Evelyn was only 13 months old. My husband and I didn’t tell anyone that I might have cancer. We just went to appointments on our own, taking the kids with us. We didn’t want to cause worry or concern before we knew the details. So our kids just kept on as if nothing had changed.
We had talked about cancer often. We were at the age when it was a real possibility. People we knew would be diagnosed. Just 8 days after we noticed the lump, I got the call that I had won the lottery. I was the first of our friends to be diagnosed with cancer. Lucky me.
We called my tumor Mavis. I felt like if we vilified it, I could more easily gang up on it. As word spread, I got lots of texts of people flipping Mavis off. Some people go into the shadows and have a pity party, but I decided to start a campaign against this terrorist who had invaded my body.
We sent the girls to stay with my parents for a couple nights while I had surgery to remove the tumor. We needed to be at the hospital early in the morning and I would need to stay at least one night. The last night we were all under our roof, I sang Nora a lullaby. I love you Nora. Oh yes I do. I love you Nora. It’s true. When you’re not with me, I’m blue. Oh Nora, I love you.
The tumor was on my thyroid, located adjacent to my vocal chords. There was a chance they could be damaged in surgery. I love to sing. All day, everyday, making up songs to get my kids to help out or do what needed to be done. This was a true fear for me, that I may never be able to sing again. I recorded the lullaby on my phone that night. I needed to make sure Nora would always hear her lullaby.
Surgery to Remove the Tumor & Complications
Mavis left during a surgery 17 days after she was discovered. I left the hospital looking like Frankenstein, with a swollen wound and big stitches across the front of my neck. It wasn’t pretty, but it was only a couple days before Halloween, so I rocked it.
The kids came home and just stared. I was very sore and my body was adjusting to the thyroid medication. I was weak and tired. I could not pick up my baby or chase my active preschooler. All I could do was sit in the chair.
I tried to rush my recovery once my kids were home. My mother-in-law was here to help, but I could do this. I was not going to sit in a chair and watch someone else take care of my kids. And then it happened. As I was sitting on the floor with my baby in my lap, I started to black out. I called out to my mother-in-law to take her and lied down. The ambulance came and took me back to the hospital. Family had to stay with us if my husband was at work to ensure I did not have another spell alone with the kids.
Nora started acting out. We were out of routine and there were constantly people in our house. She didn’t have any “quiet” time or personal space. I did my best to keep things normal, having her go to school and music class. But it was with grandma, and not mom. She never asked questions or talked about cancer. She was old enough to understand that mom was sick, but not old enough to understand what was happening.
Evelyn has always been a mama’s girl. She had a rough first year of life and had become attached to her mom. She followed me around with arms in the air, begging to be held. All I could do was sit on the floor and let her climb in my lap. It broke my heart to see her confusion on why I couldn’t comfort her.
Things weren’t getting better and these spells weren’t going away. I had relied on my family for 2 weeks of constant care and they were craving their normal lives back. One day, I finally just sat on the floor and cried. Would I ever be able to care for my children again? Would I ever be able to drive a car again? Would my family ever lead a normal life? I had to start researching daycares and nannies. I would have to pull Nora out of school because no one would be able to transport her. My positive outlook, the fact that I was diagnosed with a non-terminal cancer, my amazing support system, it all was crumbling around me.
And then, when I called the on-call doctor yet again during a spell, he recommended a new medication. And that day, I got better. My parathyroids were damaged, a complication just 3% of patients face, but we could treat this.
Day by day, I got better. My medications were adjusted and after 3 long weeks, I was able to be on my own with my kids. The first day, we stayed home and just enjoyed each other and the quiet of the house. We colored, read stories, played play dough and watched cartoons. The next day, I drove my kids to music class. And just like that, we were normal again.
The next step in treatment was radiation. Some genius of a person had discovered how to attach radioactive material to iodine. The thyroid is the only place in the body that processes iodine so it only goes to those cells. Awesome, I thought. Few side effects, I thought. But then the endocrinologist, the doctor that treats thyroid patients, told me the actual radiation isn’t the hard part. Going off of the thyroid medicine for 4-6 weeks prior would leave me feeling like a big ball of poop. Terrific. Can’t wait, I thought. Who wants to celebrate Christmas feeling like a big ball of poop?
As luck would have it, this doctor was traveling to India and I needed to switch doctors. Alleluia and Praise the Lord that she did, because the new doctor recommended a totally new treatment plan. I could get shots rather than go off my thyroid medication and only feel “a little crappy” for 2 weeks.
I was able to wait until January to do the radiation treatment. I was nauseous, but not pukey. I was tired and weak, but could still walk around. I had to leave my kids for 7 days because I, and all of my bodily fluids, were radiating. Yes, my pee was radioactive. I was instructed to flush twice to ensure the next toilet user wouldn’t unknowingly radiate their privates. Luckily my amazing mother-in-law was willing to take that chance and I crashed with her.
My baby would not come near me when I came home. I was shocked that my little shadow had turned on me. I had hurt her and she was not going to let me near her. It took 3 days for her to come around.
7 days after taking my radioactive iodine pill, my tastebuds stopped working. This was less than a week before my birthday so the idea of celebrating at Chives or Black and Tan Grille were less than appealing.
But that was that. I was done with this chapter. I had put Mavis in a box and threw her on the back shelf to get on with my life. I had lost my not so perfect singing voice for 2 months. I was quarantined from my family for a week. I lost my taste buds for 4 weeks. But as doctors all told me, this is the “Good Cancer.” “If you’re going to end up with cancer, this is the one to get.” I had won the lottery twice. Mavis would not kill me.
Mavis didn’t kill me, but she did kill my chances of having another baby. The damage to my parathyroid left my electrolyte balance in constant flux and forced me to be on medications unsafe for pregnancy. My electrolyte balance will never find normal, causing me to need medication every 4 hours for the rest of my life. Although it was the “easy cancer”, it forever changed me and my family.
Here’s what you should know about Papillary Thyroid Cancer
(the most common form of thyroid cancer)
- There are often no symptoms, other than a lump on your neck
- Your thyroid levels can be normal even when you have thyroid cancer
- 95% of all nodules/lumps on your thyroid are not cancerous
- It grows slowly
- 3 out of 4 cases are in women
- Having a family member with Thyroid Cancer increases your risk, but most patients do not have a family history
- It can occur at any age, but the risk peaks for women in their 40s and 50s
- The American Cancer Society reports about 62,450 new cases of thyroid cancer and about 1,980 deaths from thyroid cancer in the United States for 2016
Check Your Neck
September is Thyroid Cancer Awareness Month, so I ask you, please feel your neck. Feel your husband’s neck. Heck, feel your friend’s neck if they’ll let you. If you do feel something, don’t panic. Call you doctor, and have them feel your neck. And when your annual comes around, as much as we all hate putting our feet in those strips, keep your appointment. All things wrong are more manageable when caught early.