First of all, if you want to get caught up please read Thyroid Cancer Sucks Too (Part 1) I’ll wait, if you want to grab a cocktail also, go ahead, I’m sure it’s 5 o’clock somewhere… so picking up with my surgery to remove the tumor:
The surgery itself was a cakewalk, but I am probably a terrible judge because I have had 5 major surgeries in the past 2 and 1/2 years and this was the only one that did not include an overnight hospital stay. My neck was really sore and I felt crappy for a few days, but my surgeon was wonderful and only a few months later I barely have any scar at all.
What no one was prepared for was my reaction afterwards. See, my surgeon had never removed the thyroid of a patient whose colon was so recently yanked out (I’m special) and so did not realize that when my parathyroid (which processes calcium) went to sleep when it was separated from the thyroid (very common) I would go into severe calcium depletion. The symptoms of this include sudden numbness and tingling in the hands, feet, and face. When this started happening, the Dr. said to take some calcium pills and I would get better. But without a colon I was not absorbing enough of the calcium and it got worse. And then I had a full on freak out.
I have had some minor anxiety issues my entire life, but basically since I found out I had to have my colon removed it has (understandably I think) been getting much worse. When my hands and feet started tingling, I knew in the back of my head it was just the calcium but then my anxiety kicked in and I started panicking that I was actually having a stroke, ignoring it, and would be dead in minutes. Then my whole face went completely numb, and the top of my head, and I couldn’t feel my legs. I became absolutely certain that I was dying and that I needed to get up and run to safety, but was scared to stand up on my tingly legs. Luckily I already had a therapist on board at this point and had a slight moment of lucidity in which I recognized the signs of a panic attack and called her. One long phone call and an ass-ton of Xanax later, I was finally able to sleep and the next day my surgeon got me on some calcium that worked and I was feeling much better. Basically, my mind took some very real symptoms I was having and expanded them to my whole body causing a full blown panic attack, which those of you who have experienced them know is pretty much the scariest thing ever. (Pretty soon I’ll tell you all about the one when I thought the tree from Poltergeist was attacking me- good times!)
Once the calcium thing got sorted out, there was my medicine to deal with. I no longer produce any thyroid hormone at all so I have to take Synthroid and it can be tricky to get the dosage just right. Too little and you are exhausted and too much can cause major jitters, anxiety and sleeplessness (all of which are things I have just fine on my own.) It took some trial and error but now I have my dose at a pretty good level and am doing ok. Long term I just have to stay on my Synthroid forever and get checked once a year to make sure my levels are stable and no thyroid tissue has grown back.
The strange thing is that I went through all of this without knowing if I actually had cancer or not, we had to wait a few weeks for all the pathology to come back. When I got the news that it was in fact Stage 2 cancer ( a follicular papillary variant, which is why it could not be diagnosed in biopsies) I had some really mixed feelings. First of all I was grateful that it was encapsulated and my surgeon was reasonably certain that she got all the nasty cancer cells and that no radiation or chemo was needed. I also had a weird feeling of relief that we didn’t take out a perfectly healthy organ for no reason. But I didn’t really have time to process the Cancer part of the whole thing because my next colon surgery was scheduled in a few weeks and I had to focus on that.
It is only now that I am starting to get some of the deep realization that I did in fact have Cancer. For a long time, I felt that I couldn’t really even identify myself as a cancer survivor because I didn’t have to do chemo or anything. My cancer suffering was not as bad as it is for many people, so who was I to complain about it? But then I realized that Thyroid Cancer is a real cancer and it is ok that I feel frightened that I had it and pissed off that my body betrayed me and let those cancer cells grow. It is normal that now every time I feel a strange ache or a lump somewhere in my body I worry that it might be cancer. Once that C word is attached to you, it changes your way of thinking. Cancer is no longer something that only happens to other people, that you do a run/walk to support, or that you eat well to try and avoid, it is a real to you in a way it never was before.
All that said, I do realize how lucky I am. I have no idea how long that cancer was growing but it was big enough to be felt by a Dr.’s touch to my neck. I had no identifiable symptoms and would never have known it was there if not for that body scan and a really smart doctor who looked twice at a little blip. That could have kept growing until it became a much bigger problem. Of course, the timing was not ideal (being sandwiched in between two other major surgeries,) but I was happy to get that thing out of me as soon as possible so that I could move forward.
I have often felt that I need to do something to acknowledge that I survived, to celebrate that I am doing so well and to mourn the loss of my thyroid who treated me well for 33 years. So today at 3pm Central time I am getting my hair chopped off and donating it to Pantene’s Beautiful Lengths which makes wigs for women who have lost their hair due to cancer treatment. So keep an eye out for tomorrow’s post with before and after pics!