Despite being diagnosed with papillary thyroid cancer in March of 2021, I never thought of myself as a cancer patient. I am a mother of four and grandmother of five, and my house is always full. I spend a lot of time with my family and caring for my son, who has several medical complications. I’ve worked various jobs, including working at a preschool as an aid and in the office, and I retired several years ago. Thankfully, my thyroid cancer did not present with many symptoms. So I always viewed it as another thing I had to take care of.
It all started in Fall 2020, when I noticed a lump in my neck while showering. I’m physically active, so I thought I might have pulled a muscle while exercising. I was diagnosed with melanoma a few years earlier, so I have had biannual appointments ever since to check my skin and lymph nodes for signs of recurrence. During one of these appointments, the dermatologist noticed the lump. But she agreed with me that it could just be muscle strain. However, after finding the same lump at my next visit six months later, she referred me to an ENT.
The ENT performed a biopsy and confirmed my diagnosis of papillary thyroid cancer. He referred me to a new surgeon for a second opinion on my CT scan. I immediately felt at ease with this new doctor and appreciated his comforting bedside manner. I was fortunate that my cancer would likely not require chemotherapy. It would hopefully be a “one and done” situation after surgery. I liked the doctor’s attitude and felt grateful that we would get this taken care of.
After an additional biopsy, I underwent a total thyroidectomy where 5–6 lymph nodes were removed to prevent recurrence. The surgeon told me that my voice might be affected, as well as my arm mobility. I wasn’t too worried about those things. But the thought of cutting into my neck made me nervous about my ability to breathe and swallow. After a two-night hospital stay and three-day-long sore throat, I healed as well as my care team expected. Fortunately for me—though maybe unfortunately for my family—my voice was unaffected!
I then underwent radioactive iodine (RAI) therapy and a second surgery for an additional malignant node along my carotid artery line. Isolating myself from my family (and even the doctors in the hospital!) while taking the iodine pills made me feel contagious and strange. But, I suppose COVID made me more familiar with quarantine and isolation, so it wasn’t so bad.
The hardest part of this process was probably going into the hospital alone, since my husband wasn’t allowed to come in because of pandemic restrictions. I didn’t feel afraid the second time around. I thought to myself, “I did this last time, so I can do it again.” I got past the fear of having my neck cut into. I took a little longer to recover from the second surgery, but all healed well, and the surgery was successful.
While RAI and more surgery weren’t necessarily enjoyable, I found ways to get myself and my family through this difficult journey. I treated my RAI isolation time as a little vacation—I read books, completed puzzles and worked on coloring books. It served as an excellent opportunity for some peace and quiet. My granddaughter had a challenging time with the separation from me, so I made her seven small items—1 for each day I was in isolation—to look forward to every day.
Preparing these gave me something else to think about while I was preparing for the radioactive iodine and getting all the tests done. I made her crossword puzzles, word searches, a coloring page of the stuffed animal friends of her favorite singing group, and coloring pages of her favorite Nintendo characters with funny notes of things I’d say when I was losing against her in the game. Everything I made her had to do with things we did together or that she liked.
On the days she felt especially sad, we would talk through the door, or if she sat far enough away, sometimes I’d open the door and converse with her from across the hall. We made it work.
Since then, I have been in good health. My arm gets a little more tired than it used to, but the fatigue is not too severe. It certainly didn’t stop me from swimming all summer long. Sometimes my salivary glands feel full and tight, so I eat citrusy foods to release them. When I get tired of eating lemons, I find creative new methods like warm massages that work well. I’m going back for a CT scan of another node soon, but I don’t let this journey define my life.
The biggest takeaway from my experiences with thyroid cancer is that your attitude has the power to control how you feel. Staying positive and upbeat, even during difficult times, helped me make it through. During uncomfortable medical examinations, I would even sing songs in my head or envision a design for a new playground for my grandkids to pass the time.
My priorities or perspective didn’t change significantly during this journey. My family means a lot to me. The most significant change I’ve noticed is that I think a little more about milestones than I used to, like my grandson’s first day of kindergarten. I feel fortunate to experience those moments.
My strong faith, trust in the doctors and self-encouragement helped me maintain hope and stay positive. I can’t say I was never afraid—of course I was! But with confidence in the surgeon and his team, I didn’t let the worries take over. I realized that I would either get better or end up in heaven, and neither scared me. I knew that others had overcome much worse. So by confidently telling myself everything would be okay, I truly believed it.