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.