Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Global Hot-Spot

The next afternoon I spoke with my friend's husband. We played phone tag all morning and finally caught up with each other at the end of the day. It was such a relief to talk with him after my phone calls from the day before.

Dr. H specializes in esophageal cancer, but he is very familiar with all head and neck cancers. I told him about my visit with the surgeon. I mentioned that she kept our conversation pretty light. 'Oh,' he said. 'I don't want you to think that we don't take your cancer seriously. We do know that it is cancer and that it is a scary diagnosis...'. I came back with, 'No! Please keep it light. I have realized that I deal with it much better that way.' If I start thinking of it on par with other, much scarier cancers, ones with poorer prognoses, that's when I start to freak out. It's too much. Trivializing it. That's the way to go. Get rid of it's fucking power.

So, with that out of the way, we had a very nice conversation. He confirmed what the surgeon had said about what to expect from the surgery. I realized that most of my questions at this point had to do with the treatment. I couldn't get a clear expectation about the treatment from what I had read online. I was going to need a radioactive iodine treatment at some point- sooner rather than later from what the surgeon had told me. I think they were a bit more concerned because the cancer had spread to lymph nodes- it wasn't just confined to the thyroid. Unfortunately, questions about the treatment would have to be answered later by the endocrinologist. It wasn't something Dr. H did himself.

We also discussed how Pittsburgh is a hot-spot for papillary thyroid cancer globally. They're not sure why. When I was at the surgeon's office I was asked to participate in a study on papillary thyroid cancer. The part of my thyroid that would not be needed for my pathologies would be used in the study. They're hoping to find out why so, so many people get it here. Honestly, since I've gotten my diagnosis I am surprised to hear how many people seem to know others who have had this. It's crazy. But good to know that all of those people? Are doing just fine.


It was a week before surgery and I was mentally going through a list of people that I wanted to tell. I had told most of my friends who I thought should know. But there were a few left. Two of them are lovely ladies who I used to work with. I knew they'd be upset if I didn't tell them before the surgery. I sent them both an email. I got back to back phone calls from them later that afternoon.

T called me first. She had her thyroid taken out a year and a half ago. Different circumstances- she had a goiter and, it turns out, they only took half of her thyroid out. Anyway, she had a lot of questions for me. Who were the surgeons, where would it be, any other surgery details... Then I got to hear about her experience. It hurt. A fuck of a lot. She went to her mother's for the weekend after the surgery. All she could eat were smoothies and soup. She was in a lot of pain and didn't want to do anything. And then she went home where her mother-in-law had been those few days helping with the kids. And her mother-in-law had been kind enough to make her a lot of soup. She froze it so T could eat it all week. Because it took her that long to want solid food.

I was surprised. I kept telling myself that the surgeon had told me that some people felt good enough to eat pizza the next day. That at worst, it would feel like a bad case of tonsillitis. Which was no big deal to me since I used to get that constantly when I was growing up. Two or three times a year from middle school up through college. The doctors really wanted me to get my tonsils out and my mother finally made me get them out my senior year. She was worried I would graduate from college and not have health insurance.

Just when I was feeling so fabulous from T's call, L called. L is a breast cancer survivor. She was very upset to hear my diagnosis and went on about how upset I must be feeling and how she was always there if I needed her. She would totally understand where I was coming from. Which was great. Only, I had been feeling so much better since I talked with the surgeon. Suddenly I felt like I should be feeling more scared, more upset. I hung up the phone and realized that I was a little depressed again. And I felt like crap about that because here my friends had called to be helpful and let me know that they understood what I was going through and instead of feeling grateful I was almost sorry that they had called. And seriously, I just needed to appreciate that I had friends who cared so much that they had to call me right away. I needed to, but instead spent the evening wallowing in self-pity and wine. Appreciation would come later that week.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012


May 4th- I had to do some shopping. I strapped my daughter in her car seat and jumped up front. I started the car and the radio came on. What I heard was the announcer beginning to say, 'Sad news today. We have just gotten word that MCA of the Beastie Boys died this morning from cancer. He was 47.'

I love the Beastie Boys. License to Ill was the soundtrack to the summer I graduated from high school. I drove around in my red VW pick up truck all summer, blaring that cassette. My freshman year roommate- who quickly became my lifelong best girlfriend- also loved that album. We have it memorized and can still sing all the words to all of the songs.

License to Ill was just the beginning of course. They only got better from there. Check Your Head is a big personal favorite. I vividly remember watching the video, So Whatcha Want, in my Oakland apartment and being blown away. They were smart and talented and continuously grew as musicians throughout their career. MCA was a kind and caring man with a wife and daughter and his death was a huge loss on many different levels. He was too young.

I had to call Alecia. While I drove we talked about the death of MCA and how awful it was. Cancer. It is a bitch. It felt strange, talking about MCA dying of cancer the same week that I got my cancer diagnosis. Different cancers of course, but strange nonetheless.

Meet the Surgeon

My mother was thrilled that my husband was going to go to the surgeon with me. Originally, he hadn't been planning to, and a good friend was going with me instead. What makes the decision for him to take off work so difficult is that he is a consultant, so being out of the office = not being billable. Which is important. But he decided going to meet the surgeon was even more so. So my friend stayed home, my mom babysat, and I met my husband in Oakland to meet the doctor who would be taking out my thyroid, and probably a few lymph nodes too.

I got to the hospital. My husband was in the lobby and I was full of anxiety. We went up to the 6th floor to check in. Once you check in you go to a small waiting room until they call you back for the appointment. The only other family in the waiting room was a couple with a daughter who was maybe about 12. It looked like they were there for their child. Suddenly I felt so stupid for worrying about myself. Worrying about yourself is nothing like worrying about the health of your child. I silently told myself to stop with the self-pity.

We were finally called back to meet my surgeon. We both instantly liked her. Quick, efficient, and upbeat. I was very comfortable with the idea of her performing the surgery. First we went over my biopsy. Yes, the nodule in my thyroid and at least one lymph node were positive for papillary thyroid cancer. I was assured that this was very curable and that this cancer was highly unlikely to recur. She actually said, 'You will probably go on to a live a long and happy life and die of something other than cancer'. It was the nicest thing anyone had said to me regarding my cancer.

She went over the anatomy of the neck. She went over the risks of the surgery. The risks are small but they are there- injury to vocal cords, injury to shoulder muscles, risk of bleeding, etc. All of the risks seemed to be about 1-2%. I couldn't have cared less about the risks, although they have to let you know about them. I just wanted the cancer out of my neck.

Then we set a date for the surgery. She wanted me to come in the following Friday. But that was when my son had his spring concert. I wasn't going to miss his first time playing the trumpet in front of an audience. The next Friday? Was take your dad to school day. I didn't want my husband to miss that either. Finally, she asked where we lived. 'Oh, well, I do surgery at St. Margaret's on Tuesdays. Would that work for you?' Yes, yes it did. So we set a date: May 15th. What a relief.