Donn Dykstra

My first unwanted, life-changing, and frankly, traumatic experience was military service starting in February of 1968.


The body bags from the 1968 Tet Offensive were arriving at Dover AFB daily. Those subject to conscription (a.k.a. “the draft”) knew what could lie ahead. The second experience started exactly 50 years later in a hospital. Thyroid cancer had spread to the clavicle, sternum, and larynx. To save my life, my doctor and his team did what I asked: get the cancer at all costs. The “costs” were many, including the loss of the sense of smell, the ability to speak, and 10% of my body weight. Radiation treatments, which began 80 days after the surgery, sapped my stamina for many months.

Now, 14 months after the last radiation treatment, both my stamina and weight have returned to pre-surgery levels. In spite of having a speech prosthesis implanted, communicating is still a challenge. Also, some foods taste very different, especially fruit juice and wine.

The above describes only the physical impacts. The emotional impacts were huge until—and this may sound weird—the “new normal” was reached.

What is a new normal? For me, it was where the mind and body reached an acceptable level to cope—and I did not get to that level alone. I had plenty of help, chiefly from my loving wife and family. However, that journey started from day one with the hospital staff. In particular, a patient advocate named Heather, a male nurse named Bobin, and a female aide named Josette. In their own way, all three said “You got this.” and “Keep your sense of humor—you are going to need it.” and “It’s OK to curse once in a while, just not all of the time.” When I would complain about something, they would say “That’s not a side effect. Deal with it.” Sounds harsh? Nope—straight, honest talk—and it was the best medicine for me.

One day, life will end. Until then, I will enjoy every precious minute.

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.