As a patient advocate, a supporter of various charities and caregiver to family members and friends battling cancer, you would think I would have been “ready” when I received my cancer diagnosis. I guess it’s absolutely true when they say, “You can never be ready.”
Nothing quite prepares you for that moment in time when you cross that threshold over to “cancer patient.”
I was diagnosed on October 11, 2016, with papillary thyroid carcinoma. For me, the journey from day one was about “survivorship” — focusing on what I needed to do each day to get to the end goal — being cancer-free.
After additional biopsies and testing, I was told cancer had spread into the lymph nodes. My surgery was now going to be much more extensive and would require radioactive iodine therapy as well. I underwent a six-hour surgery the day before Thanksgiving. There they removed my entire thyroid, two parathyroids and 49 lymph nodes in the central and right sections of my neck.
The pain, swelling, discomfort, numbness, loss of voice, difficulty swallowing and so many more unpleasant complications in the aftermath now made the experience very real for me.
Weeks after the surgery I developed lymphedema in my neck, chin and chest area and had to have my neck drained of fluid. Not fun! I then went to 10 weeks of lymphedema therapy — having my throat, neck, chin, ear, upper chest and shoulder area manipulated and worked on to decrease the swelling. Swallowing took time and choking was my new talent! My voice was the worst and took six months to return. It is still not fully there and I can no longer sing or talk for long periods of time without it straining, but at least I can talk!
Then in February 2017, I went on to do the radioactive iodine treatments and two weeks of a low iodine diet. There are no words to describe how difficult and unpleasant this part is. Then onto the drug injections, full body scan and the radioactive iodine pill — the scariest and most mind-blowing part of this adventure.
Having people push a radioactive pill at you — while they stand far away, in protective gear, with Geiger counters, and ask you to pick it up and swallow it — is beyond anything I could wrap my head around. Yet I did it.
Then the isolation. As if all of this wasn’t hard enough, you now needed to go be alone — with your residual cancer, your fear, your radioactive self — and stay there until it was time to come out. Then another body scan and breath held until the results. All clear!
Same at the six-month follow up. One enlarged node they will watch on the right side of my neck. We will see what that brings at my year follow-up testing.
Everyone’s journey is different as we go through surgery, treatment and recovery. I would find my hope and strength deep down in a place inside of me I didn’t know existed. There was a surplus of strength I would go to every day when giving myself pep talks through the fear, confusion or the pain.
I realized even with all of the love, support and kindness of so many incredible family members and friends, all of the hard work was up to me — physically, spiritually and emotionally.
It’s times like this when you are forced to reevaluate your life.
Then make changes accordingly.
I saw how easy it was to let this break me or to take back my control. I had my meltdowns, but then I moved on. I was determined, even in my darkest days, to not lose hope.
I found that releasing and letting go of the bad thoughts and negative feelings as quickly as I could was key in order for me to move forward in a stronger, more positive way.
I have met some amazing people through this experience — from medical professionals to patients — and for that, I am beyond grateful.
I know the journey will change, but will never be over. With every follow-up appointment, scan, complication, side effect or scare I may encounter, I will now be living my new life — my “new normal” as a “cancer survivor.”
I also know I have the power to make that life whatever I want it to be.
One day at a time, looking forward to the future, staying as healthy as possible, as educated and informed about my cancer as I can, and helping others along the way.
Life has changed and I have changed, but all for the better.
Life is what you make it, and I plan on making every day that I get as great as I possibly can. I hope you do the same.