Ben Ahles

When I was 10 years old, my parents noticed a strange bump on my neck. They took me to my local doctor, who diagnosed me with hyperthyroidism and reassured my parents that I didn’t need any treatment.

However, after a year something still didn’t feel right. My parents decided to take me to see an endocrinologist in New York City for a second opinion. This visit would change our lives forever.

As a kid, I didn’t really understand what was going on. All I knew was that I was very, very sick. My doctor explained that I had cancer in my neck, and that they would have to remove it to make me healthy again. I would later understand that I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, which had spread all over my neck and into over 30 lymph nodes. In the summer of 1997, at age 11, I had surgery to remove my thyroid and all of the cancerous nodes.

Unlike most teenage boys, my life was structured around scans and doctors appointments. I needed a tutor just to keep up with my classes. Even when I was in school, my life was not normal. Kids were always asking me why I had a scar running along my neck. I underwent another surgery to remove some suspicious lymph nodes, which were luckily benign. After this second surgery, I went on low-iodine diets every year until I was 16 to prepare for annual radioactive iodine scans.

Being diagnosed with cancer at a young age made me sharply aware that life is unpredictable. As a teenager, I cautiously went about life, worried that I was going to get sick again. However, as a studio art major in college, challenging myself to create intricate and dynamic sculptures gave me the confidence to become more adventurous in life. Now, as a professional artist, I challenge myself to design pieces that make me feel alive, whether that means welding stubborn metal or carving large pieces of wood. Art not only gives me an avenue to express myself and capture the temporality of life, but also allows me to inspire others to appreciate life around them.

My advice for anyone going through treatment is to take everything one day at a time and, even when it’s hard, find ways to appreciate life

Recently, I went back to see that same endocrinologist who diagnosed me with thyroid cancer 21 years ago. Hearing him say that I am 21 years in remission and healthy was a great milestone. My advice for anyone going through treatment is to take everything one day at a time and, even when it’s hard, find ways to appreciate life. Don’t let the present stage bog you down too much, and trust the people who say everything will be okay. Cancer can be a very fickle thing, but after getting through treatment, you will gain a much greater perspective on life, family, and friendships and will be able to overcome any other challenges you may come across.

30 Stories in 30 Days

September is Thyroid Cancer Awareness Month. For the next 4 weeks, we will post stories written by thyroid cancer survivors, caregivers and friends for our 30 Stories in 30 Days campaign. We hope their perspectives and insight will help others along their journey.