As a 26 year old recent medical graduate, there were only a few things that I felt could ever stand between me and my career goals. Never in a million years did I ever think it would be my own body potentially stopping me, and when it felt like it was, I had absolutely no idea how to handle it. I just spent the last several years perfecting the art of patient interactions, and now I was struggling to come to terms with being a patient myself and listening to my own jargon being spewed right back at me. In light of World Cancer Day, this is the story of how I hit a little bump in the road called Thyroid Cancer.
I’ll never forget the morning I was brushing my teeth earlier this year and looked in the mirror and saw a lump in my neck. I can assure you that a 4 letter word that starts with ‘F’ rang loudly through my head. I got an ultrasound done the next day just to get a call back saying my pre-existing little nodule had just about doubled in size after being stagnant for years. Well one indeterminate FNA later and I was seated at an ENT’s office for a surgical consultation. I know I made that sound like it happened in a matter of days, but believe me these things happened weeks apart, just enough time for me to go insane by overthinking everything. Using humour as a very clear defence mechanism, I dubbed my growing nodule “schrodey”, short for schrodingers nodule, as the biopsy wasn’t conclusive we had to cut the thing out to know what it really was (like Schrodingers Cat in the box, wether its alive or dead you don’t know until its open!). One of my friends called me crazy for this, and I don’t think I can disagree here, thanks Stevie.
This entire time the “C” word was never really dropped since statistically my age, nodule characteristics and its size really weren’t alarming enough to just come right out and say it. We were worst case scenario’ing the entire time and just doing surgery as a precaution, but in my head I knew there was no way it was going to just be nothing. Lo and behold, one hemithyroidectomy later your girl had a Multifocal Papillary Thyroid Carcinoma, and to be honest, I wasn’t very surprised. I was ok with it in a sense that it pretty much just validated the struggle I had been going through the past several months. I never hit the wall, I never cried my eyes out, I just accepted it and thought well then, its over. Little did I know that was just the start.
Going through this process with a medical background and thorough understanding of everything really made this quite the experience. I distinctly remember being in the PACU after surgery and hearing another patient being told his pheochromocytoma was successfully removed. My head snapped up and my inner geek was full on going “NO WAY”, that was way cooler and rarer than my lame thyroid cancer. Not that any cancers are cool in any way, but boy would I have loved to see that surgery.
The absolute hardest part of this all was how it changed my mind. I had come to terms with my body failing me and letting this thing grow, but what I didn’t anticipate at all was how slow and tired I would feel post-operatively in a hypothyroid state. Up to this point I was totally normal, and then right after surgery my brain felt like it was in a dense fog and I was aimlessly walking around trying to find the ends to my sentences so I could form a coherent thought. I felt like my mind was failing me. Where was my bright, fast paced, witty personality? Why was sleeping the only thing I cared about? Did the stairs always make me this tired? I literally sat through a Residency interview and the entire time I was focused on my inability to focus. Yes this was all happening in the thick of residency applications, I was 4 weeks post op here, and TSH check was advised to be done on the 6th, go figure. The faculty was amazing though so maybe they didn’t notice? At least I hope not.
Cancer changes you. For better or for worse, it takes everything you ever thought about life and throws it right out the window. No I did not stop talking to my friends, I did not ignore people, I did not change who I was as a fundamental being, BUT it changed how I interpreted everything from that point onwards. You experience different types of hurting, my vantage point shifted and I was getting hit with all sorts of feels. I was no longer on the outside looking in, I was on the inside being stared at and wondering how I got there.
I was honestly so preoccupied with worrying about how my scar would look that I never thought about pretty much anything else. I feel eternally stupid for that, I rock my scar like its nobody’s business (because it literally freaking isn’t), but I never planned to feel like half the person I was before this. Have you ever studied while in that weird mental state? It’s what I imagine Dory from Finding Nemo is like, one thing in and another one out, but wait, what was that again? who knows it’s gone now. This hit hard because I had spent so much time and effort into learning a craft, discovering the art of medicine, and god damnit I spent countless hours studying for those exams and it felt like it was all gone. I couldn’t handle that, and it hurt. Who am I now? What will I do? How will people see me? Where do I go from here? Was I still the same person, could I ever get there again? Is this what people will know me for now? I needed to be me again, and bless the lords for synthroid and letting me work my way back up there.
I had to learn to like myself again, as is, foggy brain and scarred. Well actually, I had to learn to stop hating myself first. I’m generally not a negative person but this all threw me for a loop. I felt like my life was pretty much spent in textbooks up to this point, and sure I had memories of different things, but there was so much to do and I worked so hard to get where I am thinking “I’ll get to that one day” that this knocked me flat on my butt and said there will always be a “one day”, but what if you wont see it? why not today? I know I’ll spend a good part of my life worrying and checking the remaining half of my thyroid for this to come back, but until then I can do as much as I can and cross off as many things on my list as possible – and yes, I have a literal hand written bucket list so I can get that satisfaction of crossing things off, I’m weird, I know, what else is new. It was a journey, going from this determined and goal oriented mindset, traversing through what feels like a landmine of emotional pitfalls and then finally just being happy to be alive on the other side. I’ve somehow come out of it more confident and determined to succeed in more ways than before.
I am forever grateful for my friends, family and healthcare providers. I think had it not been for the “u ok?” or “how r u feeling?” texts I got from those who cared, I wouldn’t have really noticed how I didn’t get a single one from those who I expected to care. That was a new type of hurt. Friendships I had for decades crumbled for me in days, and I’m not burning any bridges, I’m just realizing there never really was a bridge to begin with. In my head I was full on Ed Helms apologizing for annoying people with my friendship, but its cool, I’ll live. There was an army of people sending me words of encouragement, providing reassurance and making countless attempts to keep me cheered up while they were fighting their own battles in the background the entire time. For my parents, this was a total curveball. I am so sorry to them for bringing any kind of hurt or fear to their hearts, and I never want to do that again. The perpetually stoic and confident father I had my entire life was crying like a child, and that too, was a new type of hurt. I can’t imagine what was going through their minds, but I am glad they handled it the way they did cause I really needed to hold myself together and they helped me do that.
I am well aware that I had a very quick and smooth experience with Thyroid Cancer, and that some people don’t. I was extremely lucky to have seen it when I did, that my family doctor listened to me, trusted my judgement and never questioned my insane obsession with the scar and she actually made me feel pretty normal for it. I did not have to go through the wringer of chemo or radiation, I only had one surgery without complications and I am very much so the luckiest unlucky person, and I couldn’t be happier for it.