My Cancer Diagnosis, Part 2
(The first part of the story is here.)
To me, actually having surgery turned out to be not nearly so scary as recovering from surgery. The day the left lobe of my thyroid was removed, I was running on adrenaline.
In my struggle with anxiety, I’ve learned that if I try to run from anxiety, deny it or squash it, it gets bigger and worse. But if I run toward it with a kind of tough-girl act, “Bring it on! Is that the best you can do?” I can climb over the panic and feel better.
The day of my surgery was all about tough-girl “I am gonna do this thing!” I couldn’t eat or drink after midnight, and I had this vivid dream I was shopping at Costco and enjoying all the samples. I jolted awake—oh, no! I can’t have my surgery after all! Why did I go to Costco?—and it took me a few minutes to realize I hadn’t actually left my bed or eaten anything and I was okay.
We got to the hospital around 7 in the morning, returning library books on the way because that is what we do in our family. I’d brought along to read the second in the Miss Buncle series, a charming book about an author renovating a home in the English countryside, and sitting in the waiting room, I read that book as if my life depended on it.
Eventually we got called back and the first thing the nurse asked was if I’d just had a baby. “Umm … no … do you begin all conversations this way?” (And please tell me you’re not looking at my mommy tummy.) Once we’d established that I was really not postpartum, we settled into a different room, I changed into a gown, and read Miss Buncle again.
Ben, who was there the whole time, working on his laptop, asked if he could pray with me right before the nurse came back, and I said no. I think I was afraid with his hand on my shoulder and his gentle voice I would totally fall to pieces. So that was my unspiritual moment. I had this definite sense of God wrapping His presence around me and giving me courage, but I could not handle pausing for a moment and being fragile.
I got the IV and got a blood-thinning shot. I chatter when I’m nervous, and I told the nurse I was so grateful the IV had gone in no problems, because my friend who had a baby last week had been stuck four times trying to get the IV in. The nurse said, “Oh, you just had a baby?” No, I did not just have a baby! What in the world. Forget I said anything.
Then we talked to my surgeon. He exudes this kind of paternal competence. I really like him and was glad Ben got to meet him. The surgeon said I would probably need to stay overnight. I asked him if he was teasing because before he said I could probably go home the same day. He said he wasn’t, and I knew our kids really wanted me coming back that night, so that became my new goal: change his mind and go home today.
Wheeling back to the operating room, the nurse asked about my teaching and we chatted about middle school writing. Then there were bright lights above me and that is the last thing I remember. I’ve since figured out that whenever medical staff are afraid you are going to panic, they ask you about your job to distract you.
I woke up in a big room filled with hospital beds. There was a big clock in front of me that said 11:05. The room was tipping strangely and fading in and out. I blinked and the clock said 11:20. A nurse asked me how my pain was on a scale of 1 to 10. My throat was sore but not bad, so I said 3. She gave me an ice chip. My body didn’t think it was at all strange that she was spoon-feeding me an ice chip, because I hadn’t yet realized that I had arms and hands that might have done of the job for her. I felt like I was going to throw up, so she said no more ice chips and she was giving me anti-nausea medication. The room kept tipping from side to side.
My rational self was definitely battling the craziness in my body that hour. Never having had surgery before, I had expected to wake up in my own private room with Ben smiling down at me, and that he would promptly turn on the playlist on my phone that I’d selected to listen to while I recovered. But here in the recovery room, there was no Ben in sight, and my phone was gone to wherever my purse and bag had gotten to.
Instead of listening to my empowering music, I was listening to the beeping of hospital machines. A man on my left, whom I couldn’t turn my head to see, had had a “metatarsal amputation” and when asked about his pain on a scale of 1 to 10, he calmly replied that he was at a 9. He eventually left, and the patient who took his place had had lung surgery and kept coughing.
My irrational self felt like a whiny child—I want my husband! I want my music! Where is my phone? When can I leave this terrible place? The nurse caring for me also had a few other patients and was busy and overwhelmed multi-tasking, kind of like I am on a home school morning. She said something brusque to the effect of, “Look, I have a few other patients to take care of, you’re probably going to have to stay here for a couple hours, your husband isn’t allowed in here, and I don’t know where your phone is.”
The room kept tipping from side to side, and it was 11:45. The thought of lying there for two hours, trying not to throw up and listening to beeping and human suffering around me, made me want to panic. At the same time, my rational self kicked into gear enough to tell me, Get it together, the better you behave the sooner you can leave this place. So I was very nice to the busy nurse, and kept looking straight ahead willing the room not to tip over, and I was wheeled out around 12:00 noon.
I kept my eyes closed tight the entire trip to my room because I felt so motion sick. I was hoping Ben would be in the room when I got there, but he wasn’t. They did bring me my bag, rummage in it, and hand me my phone, and I called him. He hadn’t heard yet that I’d been relocated and said he was on his way. Holding my phone and waiting for him, my rational self was like, Put that thing down. You are way too drugged to be using a smart phone. Don’t you dare even think about texting or posting to Instagram right now, okay?
Ben came and turned on my music for me and all was right with the world. Gradually I felt well enough to drink a few sips of water, then of apple juice. I tried to read Miss Buncle again but the nausea was too great, and I decided right then that I really hated the book. I have not touched it since, even though I think I hardly gave it a fair trial.
So instead, I spent the afternoon on Netflix on my phone, watching one episode after another of Gilmore Girls. That’s just the kind of mindless fun I would recommend to anyone who is trying to manage pain without Percocet. Gilmore Girls has fewer side effects.
Eventually I felt up to eating and ordered garlic herb salmon, which ended up tasting like shoe leather. I was still running on adrenaline and wanting to go home, so I changed into my normal clothes, kept watching Gilmore Girls, and by the time the surgeon came around at 3:45 I was sitting up, feeling good, ready to go home, and was discharged around 5.
My surgeon was a little surprised I hadn’t needed anything for pain, and really the incision on my neck has never hurt very much. What surprised me about my recovery from surgery, though, beginning the next day, was this:
Surgery absolutely destroys your body. As in, you are not yourself afterwards. I ran on adrenaline, I’m going to do this thing and get home today, the whole day of my surgery, but the next day, which was Thanksgiving, I crashed and felt like a blob. I couldn’t turn my head. My neck muscles were killing me from holding the same tight position all day long. I was constipated and exhausted. And I lost my voice and didn’t get it back for several days.
It was about a week before I could turn my head enough to drive, before I could talk normally, and before I could be awake for a few hours without feeling like napping. I wasn’t sleeping well, and I still felt like I’d lost myself and was wandering through a cloud. I started thyroid medication and felt a little more normal.
The pathology report came back that I did indeed have thyroid cancer. My surgeon wanted me to get a biopsy of my lymph node that has been swollen for several months, to see if the cancer has spread there. It turned out that the day after I started feeling a little more normal, I went to get the lymph node biopsy.
I had a thyroid biopsy done in August, so I approached the biopsy with my I can do this, no problem! attitude—after all, if I’ve survived getting my throat slit in surgery, what was a little needle? Nothing, right? I even wore heels to the biopsy because ironically it makes me feel stronger, even though practically I know all it means is that I walk a little more precariously.
I learned that a lymph node biopsy is a hundred times worse than a thyroid biopsy. Just in case you were wondering, there it is. I was lying on the bed, waiting for the needle and trying not to panic, when the doctor started questioning me about my work. I know what you are up to! You are trying to distract me! But I grabbed that distraction like it was a lifeline and we chatted about middle school writing like it was the most important thing in the world.
The big needle went in three times, deep into my neck so much that the second time it pushed my entire throat to the side, and every time it picked up cells to pull out, there was a big clicking sound. Finally it was done and I went home. I’d had no symptoms after the thyroid biopsy. But this time my lymph node was swollen and angry, and the entire left side of my head was clouded and achy, like a terrible sinus headache that descended all the way from the top of my skull to the front and back of my neck.
I’ll be honest that the biopsy kind of felt like adding insult to injury. Right now I feel like curling up in a ball and yelling, Don’t touch my neck! So the left side of my head still feels terrible, my throat has this big ugly cut on the front, and I’m still waiting to hear back on the biopsy results to know whether I’m done with this drama or if I will need another surgery.
Cue the bad attitude. It’s really hard for me, to be honest, to know how to answer when people ask me how I’m doing. I don’t want to be one of those How are you? Fine? Fine! kind of people. But at any given moment, I’m probably doing fine. I’m hanging onto fine as hard as I can.
Starting thyroid medication and healing from surgery has felt like an exceptionally bad case of PMS, so at one moment I might be totally fine and ten minutes later weeping incoherently. I am both fine and not fine.
I’m clinging hard to my Bible study in the book of Romans and imbibing every verse like someone dying in a desert finally getting lifegiving water. But I’m also wrestling hard with anxiety. I will dream about cancer seeping through my neck and head, and needing another surgery, and where will the kids go, and what if and what if …
For a few hours I might be feeling good and I’ll spend some quality time with the kids and run a load of laundry and then my head will start aching and I’ll crawl in bed and think that life is impossible, and it will be impossible until thirty minutes later when I wake up feeling fine and I’ll get some tea and grade some of my student papers.
This is my favorite time of year, and this year I’m not worrying about Christmas shopping or activities or baking or getting any of it done. I know thinking about the true meaning of Christmas is so cliché, but this Christmas my most powerful impression is that Jesus came to be with me in my mess and save me from my anxiety and heal my broken body.
So how am I doing? Totally fine and not fine and I really don’t know. Taking it moment by moment and really looking forward to when this is all over.