A Long Winded Version of My Cancer Journey

This year is the 18 year anniversary of a landmark in my life. Little known fact about me, I had cancer when I was 16. I was in French class when the boy behind me noticed my throat and in true teenage boy fashion said, “What the heck is wrong with your neck? You have an Adam’s apple!” I remember reaching up to my throat being mortified. I had never noticed it before, but very clearly, there was a large lump off centered on my neck where an Adam’s apple would be. “You are a goiter girl!!” he repeated continually. Immediate embarrassment! But, my French teacher, Mr. Isom, saw the interaction and came up to warn me that I needed to get it checked out. He was genuinely concerned for me.

I went home from school that day and went to my neighbors house. She had been a nurse for years and I figured she would have a diagnosis, which she didn’t. In fact she blew it off like it wasn’t that big of a deal. She explained that I should get it checked because it was most likely an overactive thyroid gland, but no rush. “I guess I just have an emerging Adam’s apple,” I thought as I headed back home. “Thanks mom and dad for passing on the weird genes.”

To reassure ourselves, my mom took me to an ENT doctor to get my thyroid checked. Dr. Haller was a tall blonde haired, piercing, blue eyed doctor. I remember immediately being struck by his young, good looking features and my 16 year old self immediately felt self conscious that I had an Adam’s apple. He had worked on cancer victims in Chernobyl. He was a world renowned thyroid expert.

He put both of his hands on my neck and started feeling my lymph nodes and thyroid. He agreed with my neighbors assessment that my thyroid was just acting up but he decided to do a biopsy to cover his bases. He pulled a giant needle out of the drawer. A needle that looked exactly how you would picture a tranquilizer looking. I am sure my eyes were huge. He stuck it in my throat, pulled out fluid and went to test it. Within 20 minutes Dr. Haller returned with about 4 of his colleagues all in their white lab coats and serious faces. Needless to say, it wasn’t “just” thyroid issues. I had thyroid cancer and I was going to have to have surgery and possible radiation treatment. I don’t remember much of the conversation. I do remember being slightly concerned with the fact that I was going to have a scar across my throat and I remember being extremely relieved that I had a choker collection at home ready to hide the scar.

A week later I was in the hospital for surgery. Both of my parents were there nervously holding my hand as they put the sleeping agent into my IV. Oddly enough I have memories of waking up on the surgical table and having the nurses put a mask over my nose and mouth and telling me to count backwards from 100. That is the last memory I have of my life with a thyroid.

Recovery wasn’t too bad. I was in the hospital for about 5 days while they drained my neck and watched my recovery. The doctor came to check on me during that stay. He explained that my thyroid had been completely overtaken by cancer. Radiation was going to be inevitable and he had me on the schedule for radiation the following month. My high school summer filled with boys and swimming was definitely getting bummed out by this whole cancer thing.

Treatment for thyroid cancer is the same across the board. You are kept in the hospital in isolation for a week while the radiation does its job. I was admitted into the University of Utah oncology floor and immediately my mom was ushered away. Like I said, I was in isolation and I couldn’t be around anyone, not even my mom. Two people with white hazmat jumpsuits came into my room wheeling in a big steel container. They opened it up and started pulling out one container after another like those Russian nesting dolls until they pulled out a tiny vile filled with a clear liquid, radioactive iodine. It wasn’t glowing green slime like I was expecting. It looked like water…boring. They instructed me to drink it and it tasted like extremely salty water. Gross. I drank it and they were gone.

So it began. My week of isolation. Nausea hit almost immediately but I had been warned not to throw up. If I did then I was going to have to start all over again. So I held down the vomit and slept off the sickness and nausea. I remember waking up to a MASH marathon. I had no energy to change the channel so I would just listen as that boring MASH music played as the soundtrack to my sickness, over and over and over. To this day, whenever I hear MASH I feel nauseous.

I made it through treatment. I had one other round of radiation when I was 19, but truly, I was a lucky one. After watching Hayes go through treatment I realize that I got off easy. I didn’t have to lose my hair. I didn’t get mouth sores, I didn’t lose my childhood. I got a teeny taste of what warriors these kids are that go through cancer treatment. I knew from that young age that I had a calling. I never envisioned then what my future held but I knew cancer had changed me and that passion blossomed.  I can assure you that becoming the care taker of a cancer patient, my baby, was more excruciatingly hard than I ever could have imagined.  I hope that my experience made Hayes’ experience a little bit easier and I hope to make all warriors experience a little brighter!

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