I was so healthy I hadn’t even been to the doctor in ten years. I hadn’t had so much as a cold since the Clinton administration! But my new health insurance was forcing me to get a checkup. I went, grudgingly. My lovely new doctor, at the end of the exam, gently announced she was sending me to the hospital for an ultrasound of my neck and a possibly biopsy of the lump she had found there. She delivered this information with such skillful sensitivity that it didn’t even register that the word “biopsy” generally means “cancer” until I had hopped off the table and was heading for the door.
“Wait, what? A biopsy? Is this like…a tumor?” I asked, worriedly pressing on the lump I had never noticed before but was now extremely obvious, even visible from the outside when I looked in the mirror.
Excessive Googling later that day didn’t allay my fears (obviously). A few days later I found myself lying on a table while a medical student nervously slid a long needle in next to my windpipe, followed shortly by the news that I had a malignant tumor on my thyroid.
Thyroid cancer is the most rapidly-increasing cancer in the United States right now.
(However, some studies indicate this increase may largely be attributed to increased detection technology.) Nearly three out of four cases occur in women. The good news is that thyroid cancer is almost always slow-growing and therefore much more easy to treat than other cancers.
In fact, since 2016, as reported by the New York Times, a small nucleus of abnormal cells on the thyroid that is completely surrounded by a capsule of normal tissue is no longer referred to as cancer and removed surgically, but is instead simply regularly monitored in case it progresses.
The thyroid, by the way, is a butterfly-shaped gland at the front of the neck that produces hormones that regulate the body’s metabolic rate as well as heart and digestive function, muscle control, brain development, mood, and bone maintenance. So it’s really important, and should not be removed unless absolutely necessary.
Unfortunately, more tests indicated my tumor was relatively large and had already “broken its capsule,” potentially invading other parts of the body. I had two surgeries, first to remove half the thyroid, then later, the other half, plus some affected lymph nodes in the neck as well.
You know how they say moms fantasize about being hospitalized as a guilt-free getaway from their responsibilities?
Well, after the first surgery I did kind of enjoy eating Jell-O and watching “Tiny House Hunters” in the hospital for a night. But the second one was called a “partial neck dissection,” and just the addition of a few extra body parts being taken out made the recovery much rougher.
Then things got a little weird: I had to undergo a “radioactive iodine” treatment, which involved being ushered into an unmarked chamber in the hospital where everyone was clad in full-body radiation suits and masks, and drinking hands-free from a cup encased behind glass, through a straw that protruded from a tiny opening. I then had to immediately leave the hospital and remain in seclusion for seven days, as my body was now emitting radiation.
That week I had to maintain a distance of several feet from other humans. I couldn’t share a bed, bathroom, or eating utensils with anyone else. This meant I stayed in an upstairs bedroom at my grandparents’ house, and my grandma left me food on a paper plate on the stair landing, as my own home was small and only had one bathroom. My youngest child was only four at the time, and it was difficult to be away for so long.
The thyroid gland gets its fuel from iodine, a mineral found in iodized salt, seafood, bread, and a few other things. It’s the only body part that uses this substance, so radioactive iodine is an effective treatment specifically for thyroid cancer, as any thyroid cancer cells that have moved to any other part of the body eagerly suck in the radioactive iodine and are killed off by it.
Four years later, I am on a medication to replace my thyroid and have annual neck ultrasounds and check-ins with an endocrinologist. I eat healthier foods and exercise regularly now, as the risk of having cancer again is elevated for those who have survived one cancer already.
“You have the good kind of cancer!”
More than one well-meaning person said this to me over the course of this ordeal. Well, here’s a little secret: there is no “good kind” of cancer. However, I feel incredibly lucky that it was slow-growing and easily treatable. I am also grateful that my thyroid medication works well. As the many women with thyroid disorders can also attest, it can take years to find the correct level of medication to replace normal thyroid function, with symptoms like depression, fatigue, joint pain, and more to deal with until it’s worked out.
For more easy-to-understand information, check out Thyca: Thyroid Cancer Survivors Network. September is National Thyroid Cancer Awareness Month. While I feel weird using the word “journey” to describe my cancer, I do privately refer to this time as my “cancer detour.” Avoid getting thrust onto an unexpected route in your own life by going for a checkup every once in awhile–even if it’s been ten years.