My Cancer Diagnosis
Over the summer, a summer of blue skies and outdoors and family and travel, my Lyme symptoms had almost completely disappeared, except for a mysteriously swollen lymph node that my Lyme specialist encouraged me to get checked by the end of summer if it didn’t go away on its own.
In the middle of August I had an ultrasound, and it was like my anxiety about all things medical and all things uncertain, anxiety that had been kept in check all summer long, bubbled to the surface. In the diagnostic center, the hallway down to the ultrasound department is so long and I walked with echoing sandals, trying to deep breathe, fighting the ridiculous urge to cry—this is just an ultrasound.
The ultrasound technician was very nice and said it was probably nothing, they see these things all the time, but the results came back that though my lymph node was not to worry about, I had a concerning thyroid nodule and should have a biopsy.
It was like I’d worked out my anxieties during the ultrasound, because when I went in for a biopsy, I felt much better—even though this was an actual hospital room, which always makes me think of childbirth, and the doctor was putting needles into my throat. He was also very kind and assured me that results come back benign in 90+% of the cases—I think he said 96%—and I assured myself that I had so many healthy habits that of course I was going to be one of that 96% and this was going to be no problem, just routine.
It was our first week home schooling, and my first week back to my part-time teaching job, when my doctor called in the middle of a Wednesday morning. David was working on one subject and Elanor on another, and Brennan was being his normal two-year-old active self, so I locked my bedroom door and then went into the master bathroom and locked that door, too, so that I could hear my doctor uninterrupted and the banging and yelling of the kids was only background noise.
“Your results came back suspicious for cancer,” she said. “You should make an appointment with a thyroid surgeon.”
I kept my cool for a couple minutes, long enough to write some information down as she kept talking, and then I just started crying. I like my doctor a lot, and she said she was so sorry she needed to tell me this over the phone, and meanwhile the kids were banging and yelling and I thought, I don’t even have time for a phone call, how am I going to have time for cancer?
I got off the phone and we kept home schooling, like I was in a daze and hearing the word “cancer” from a doctor was just too big to wrap my mind around so I kept going on auto-pilot. I called the surgeon and scheduled an appointment, and they gave me a date nine days away, so that at least encouraged me that whatever was going on, it was at least not an emergency and I had nine more days left for life as I knew it.
Except the next day I got a fever of 102, which could have been just a bug going around, but I’m inclined to think was also that I’d just been punched in the gut by the news. I took ibuprofen and worked anyway, because you do what you have to do, right? But that evening lying in bed aching, hearing Ben in the kitchen doing all the parenting and housework, I wondered, Is this going to be my new normal? Lying sick in bed while Ben tries to do it all?
I had started the school year excited not only to home school but also to get back to classroom teaching, and I wondered if all that would have to be cancelled, what would happen, what I was going to do. My life is full to overflowing anyway with three young kids and a part-time job, and cancer didn’t fit, but it was like a big ugly word that threatened to crowd everything else out.
I got over my fever. The news settled in my mind for a few more days. Then I started reading the exact results of my biopsy and studying articles from scientific journals I found online—yes, actually printing these articles and taking out my pen and highlighter and taking notes like I was a college student all over again. My extremely subjective rule for research (other than that I like to read scientific articles, that’s the objective rule) is that if it causes anxiety, I quit, and if it helps to calm me, I keep going.
This research calmed me. I liked reading about exact centimeters and exact percentages. As I read, I figured out that though the word cancer is always terrifying, thyroid cancer is the best kind to have. All I would need was surgery, no chemo or radiation or even radioactive iodine that is sometimes prescribed for larger thyroid cancers, and from my reading it seemed like removal of one lobe would be enough, and I wouldn’t have to lose my whole thyroid. It was a bit frustrating, too, that my cancer diagnosis wasn’t 100%—on a scale of 1 to 6, 6 being the most certainly cancer, I was a 5, but there was no way aside from surgery to achieve that absolute certainty.
Not only was I calmed by the research, but I was encouraged by the support of the few friends and family I told. I really felt my community and the love of people coming around me. If I didn’t tell you, please don’t feel bad. I told very few people because it was hard for me to talk about.
Weirdly, I was freaked out about the ultrasound, better for the biopsy, and at my best for the appointment with the surgeon. I brought my highlighted annotated research and my list of questions to ask. I think the surgeon was a bit amused by how prepared and matter-of-fact I was, but I was encouraged that he did not think the cancer had spread to my lymph node and he agreed with me that removal of just the left lobe of the thyroid would be enough.
Then, though this was early September, I asked him if it was safe to wait to have surgery until the week of Thanksgiving. He looked at me with a smile and said, “No one ever asks to wait.”
“Yes,” I said. “I think if I was just considering my emotions, I would want it over the sooner the better, but I have three small children and I teach, and Thanksgiving week would be best for us if you think I can wait that long.”
He agreed that I could, and I left his office feeling like I’d just gotten a new lease on life. I could home school. I could teach. I felt fine. I didn’t have to worry about anything for two months. I basically put it out of my mind and hardly thought about it because the fall was so busy and I wanted to live right where I was.
Okay, but now it’s the week of Thanksgiving and the time for surgery is here. We finally told our kids. We decided not to use the word “cancer” because not only are we not completely certain, but they have read books about people dying from cancer and I don’t want to scare them when all I will need is a simple operation. So we told them that Mommy has something in her neck that needs to come out and they’ll have fun with Grandma and Grandpa while I’m in the hospital, and they immediately started chattering about the baby alien in my neck and that was that. Let’s just say they’re not at all worried and I’m glad.
I’m not wrapping up with any grandiose theme because I don’t have one. Medical stuff happens no matter how healthy you are or try to be. We live and serve and worship in this broken, uncertain place, where the healing hasn’t happened yet, like Ellie Holcomb sings in “Find You Here.” Jesus is here and we experience Him in a new way when the ground shifts beneath our feet and we realize our life may not be as secure and stable as we thought and we really we are desperately vulnerable and we really do need Him.
P.S. I know the way some of you may show love is by offering advice, but I would ask that you please not give me any advice right now. I’ve gotten sufficient medical advice from my doctors, and have also heard the alternative perspective from my husband and mother-in-law who have helped me find ways to naturally treat cancer while I wait for surgery. So I would just ask for your prayers right now!