Thyroid Cancer: My Journey Thus Far

Hey, cancer. You're terminated.

At this very moment last year, I was lying unconscious on an operating table, my neck opened wide as a surgeon evicted my thyroid and a few dozen lymph nodes from my body. They had violated the terms of my bodily lease, and so they simply had to go. There was no other way to set things right.

The procedure had been dubbed a neck dissection. That’s not frightening at all, right? I mean, I dissected animals in high school. No big deal. Except, those animals were dead. I had to do it, though, for I had discovered a few short days beforehand what I had suspected for weeks: that lump on my neck was cancer.

Emotionally, I was caught somewhere between numb and scared shitless leading up to surgery. I had been operated on only once in my life previously, and that was a simple procedure in 2nd grade I can scarcely recall. On multiple occasions after my diagnosis, I locked myself in a bathroom and cried. What would become of me? If the worst came to fruition, what would become of my children? Would they be okay?

My medical team all said the same reassuring things. “It’s very treatable!” “Thyroid cancer has the lowest mortality rate.” “If you were going to get any cancer, this is the one to get.”

I heard that last statement multiple times. I understand the purpose of that statement, but really? Like I won some kind of fucking cancer lottery because I developed the least deadly form of cancer? Yay me? It was still scary as fuck. I’ve known way too many amazing people who have died far too young due to this monstrous curse. Hell, in just the last year, cancer pulled two people I knew well into an early grave.

When I look back at words I’ve written regarding this entire ordeal, it still doesn’t feel real. I read those words, and it’s like I’m reading about some other guy’s struggles. Some strange internet dude who also masquerades online in stormtrooper armor. I mean, that can’t be me. I don’t have cancer. But it is, and I do. And I still haven’t wrapped my head around it. I still don’t believe myself when I tell, um, myself, that I have cancer. It feels like a lie. Or a breaking story on Fox News.

My mind has a tendency to be dramatic. In my warped view, every molehill is a mountain. As I was carted away one year ago, wearing naught but a hospital gown and an IV, I vaguely remember saying goodbye to my family members, wondering if I’d ever see them again. The drugs had kicked in by the time I was in the operating room, its haunting white walls having no effect on me at this point. All the what-ifs and what-could-go-wrongs evaporated as anesthesia and sedatives saturated my body.

Despite the conspiracy theories my mind had been peddling, the operation was a success. A month later, I had radiation therapy and a follow-up scan, which showed two very minuscule spots of thyroid tissue. If everything went according to plan, the radiation terminated them like Arnold.

Despite the good news thus far (well, the news has been good other than the diagnosis), I’m still struggling with some things. My Synthroid dosage is still being adjusted. I am forever fighting fatigue. In August, I had some issues with both sides of my face swelling up. After two weeks on antibiotics for suspected dual salivary gland infections, it was determined that this was a side effect of the radiation therapy, which I may or may not have to battle for the rest of my days. Essentially, the radiation therapy attacked my salivary glands. My cheeks are still very tender. If someone presses against my face during a hug, I have to pull away. I still have some trouble eating dry foods such as bread, cookies, or chips. My glands can no longer produce enough saliva to break food down, and dry foods stick to the walls of my mouth, making it difficult to swallow. This is not necessarily a bad thing since it keeps me from eating these types of food (most of the time), and none of those foods are really healthy anyhow. Nowadays, I look at chips and think, “Meh, not worth the trouble.”

Now that a year has passed since cancer’s eviction, it’s time for me to go through my follow-up scans to determine if surgery and radiation therapy successfully completed their tasks. That means I have to stop taking the Synthroid and go on a low iodine diet for several weeks. That means I’ll be even more fatigued than I already am. That means enduring an extremely slim cuisine selection. It’s shocking how many foods contain iodine. That also means another trip to the UC radiology department to swallow a radioactive pill so they can scan my body to see what, if any, thyroid/cancerous tissue remains. That means I can once again sing along with the Imagine Dragons’ song Radioactive and not be fibbing.

Frankly, until an appointment with my endocrinologist last week (when she totally threw off my groove by reminding me of these upcoming procedures), I had almost forgotten that I had been diagnosed with cancer and had not yet been declared cancer-free. Other than struggling with fatigue and Synthroid dosage adjustments, I haven’t had any treatment specifically targeted towards cancer since April. I have been living life as I normally would (COVID restrictions aside, of course) during that time. It had not occurred to me that there may still be cancer cells lurking somewhere in my body like tiny little assholes invading the capitol.

By March, I should have the results and a better grip on what the rest of my life will look like. In the meantime, I’ll try to stay positive. And sober.

Four Score (but really only two months) Ago…

I faced the most daunting challenge of my life.

A CT scan revealed that a 4cm mass of thyroid tissue had grown outside of my actual thyroid, and a biopsy determined it was cancerous, so on January 22nd, I went in for what my ENT described as a neck dissection.

I had only had surgery once in my life to that point, and that was in 2nd grade. It was a simple procedure to remove scar tissue from the malformed growth that emerged after having my fingertip sewn back on after a freak toy box accident. No, that is not a typo, sadly.

This was going to be vastly different. This operation would be much more invasive and would be centered around several vital parts of my anatomy. I was so filled with anxiety that my doctor put me on a beta-blocker a week before the procedure to reduce my heart rate and blood pressure.

The operation lasted 5 hours, and I was in recovery for another 2 hours. My thyroid was removed, along with 53 lymph nodes. I woke with 16 staples in my neck and looked like a reject from a Tim Burton movie.

I’m once again fighting constant fatigue. The effects of radiation therapy can last from 4 to 8 weeks. I can barely taste anything, and my neck and part of my right cheek have swelled back up.

BUT…everything is looking good. At least, that’s what they’re telling me. So, for that, I am thankful.

If all this suffering keeps me around to continue watching my children grow, I’ll gladly endure it. Okay, maybe not gladly.

As I slowly come back together, the world outside is falling apart. This pandemic has shutdown nearly everything, and C’s stepfather was diagnosed with COVID-19, despite not being tested due to a shortage of tests. So C’s stuck here with me while I’m hoping that 1) the diagnosis is wrong and 2) if it isn’t, he didn’t bring it here with him.

Aside: I’m not a medical professional, but I’m not sure why they wouldn’t at least do a flu test to rule that out first

To sum this rambling shitshow up, 2020 can go suck a big, dirty…toe. What a bunch of suck this year has been.How’s everyone fairing during these trying times? I hope everyone is healthy!

Cancerous Thoughts

I sat in an uncomfortable chair in the ENT’s office after a long day at work. Between the everyday stress of working and raising my youngest son, I had the added weight of a recent biopsy haunting me, the proverbial kick while I was already down. I suspected the results I would receive that evening would confirm what I somehow already knew to be true.

Thyroid cancer.

I have spent the last (almost) two months pushing thoughts of this from my mind. A mental shield. If I don’t, unhealthy thoughts run amuck like bumper cars in my head.

Would things have been so bad if I’d asked about that lump on my neck sooner?

Did all the alcohol I drank in the wake of my mother’s death fuel the spread of the cancer?

Mom always told me she felt like a burden to me. Did she somehow know that I would soon not be able to care for her? Is that why she gave up?

If the worst should happen, what would become of my children?

Pinch-hitting for Pedro Borbón, Manny Mota…Mota…..Mota……(sorry, a little Airplane humor there)

Those are the demons that try to intrude on my day to day life. Somehow, I’ve mostly kept them at bay. Whenever one of those thoughts creeps in, I kick it right back out. I’m not sure how. I’ve never been adept at clearing my mind of harmful thoughts, but it’s working for now.

It’s been five weeks since my surgery. I still have some swelling in my neck and under my chin. My incision, which runs from the left side of the base of my neck to just a couple of inches short of my right ear and required 16 staples to close, is still a little tender and puffy, but healing nicely. My strength is slowly returning, and my energy levels are gradually normalizing.

The hard part is over, but the journey is far from complete.

Next week I go on a low-iodine diet and stop taking my Synthroid in preparation for further treatment. After a week of that, I get two days of injections, some blood drawn, and then have to swallow a radioactive pill that should destroy any cancer which may still be in my body. I’ll have to isolate myself from physical contact for some time afterward, because I’ll literally be radioactive, and could poison anyone I have prolonged contact with.

I’m not looking forward to any of this, but it’s better than another five hours on an operating table.

The silver lining in all this suffering is that my long-term prognosis is still good. My endocrinologist believes my life expectancy will not be affected by any of this. So that’s something.

The next two weeks are going to be difficult, but hopefully, I can continue to keep the demons at bay.

My Mother’s Shoes

Ten years ago I took a day off of work to drive my mother to the hospital for an angiogram. I remember waiting for hours as the procedure crawled by, but not much else. At least, not until the doctor came in to give us the results of the test.

Mom had three arteries with over 97% blockage and would require a triple-bypass. To emphasize just how dire they believed her situation to be, they immediately admitted her. Meanwhile, I had been crying since the cardiologist uttered the words triple and bypass together as if they were one; like they somehow belonged together.

Once the doctor had finished delivering this dreadful news, mom looked at me and quietly assured me that everything would be alright. I can’t imagine what horrors must’ve been bouncing around in her head after hearing such news, or how she managed to put her fears aside and remain calm while she consoled me even though she was the one who had just been told her chest would be ripped open and the plumbing redone in her heart.

It turns out she was right, though. She lived for another nine years.

I may not have been able to put myself in my mother’s shoes then, but I can now.

This past Monday I was informed I have thyroid cancer. Given my mother’s plethora of medical issues I expected I would have some medical struggles as I got older, but I believed the struggles would be the same she endured. Heart disease. Diabetes. Or possibly a mental breakdown. One of those things. All of those things. Cancer, however, was not a blip on my radar.

Things have moved quickly. Within a couple of days I had surgery scheduled to remove my thyroid, a mass on my neck, and a few lymph nodes entrapped in cancer’s grasp. Once I knew all the facts, I shared them with my family.

While fear has reduced me to tears multiple times in the past couple of weeks, I decided to walk in my mother’s shoes. I was somehow able to stay calm while speaking to my children. I was calm because that’s exactly what they needed me to be. If I’m hysterical they’ll be hysterical. I don’t want their anxiety working overtime on my account. They have enough struggles with mental health as it is. That’s when I knew how mom did it. She was strong for us when we needed her to be.

I have assured my children everything will be okay, and, really, that’s the truth. The type of cancer I have has a 99% survival rate and typically removing the thyroid is the end of it. That being said, however, I understand my children’s fear because I’ve been where they are. I hate that I’m putting them through this. I hate that my father fears for me what happened to his sister 25 years ago. I hate that my brother fears the loss of another family member mere months after losing his mom. I hate that multiple times in the past weeks I’ve looked upon my mother’s picture and had to tell her I’m not quite ready to see her again, that my children need me. I know she understands.

Since the initial shock of my diagnosis has faded, my fear has dissipated. I’m still scared of going under the knife, but my doctors have assured me that I’ll be fine, and I believe them. I already have plans to get myself back into shape once I’ve recovered. I’ve applied for a promotion at my job. I have no plans to go anywhere. My boys need me whether they think they do or not, and I’ll be here for them.

As my parents, every teacher I ever had, and both ex-wives can attest, I’m a stubborn son of a bitch.

Fuck you, cancer. I’m not ready to go. I’m still walking in my mothers shoes.