Today marks seven years since I heard those words: “Michele, it looks like you have thyroid cancer.”
It was a Friday afternoon, the week after Thanksgiving and the day before we were planning to go pick out our Christmas tree. My doctor suggested to B that he find something really nice to get me for Christmas. (He did.) And then she made two calls, and just like that, I had appointments with two of the preeminent thyroid cancer doctors in the country, one for surgery to remove my thyroid the day after New Year’s and the other to manage my treatment and care forevermore after the surgery.
After that, we gave my doctor suggestions on things to do on her upcoming trip to Hawaii — we’d just been there two months earlier on our honeymoon, after all — and then we drove home in mostly stunned silence, but for my confused questioning: “I thought I was doing everything right. I run. I don’t smoke. I eat blueberries, for god’s sake.” (Superfood, my ass.)
My thyroidectomy was a little more than a month later, but on November 30, 2007, I became a cancer survivor. I felt physically just the same as I had the day before — which is to say, completely fine — but my life had been separated into two distinct periods, one before cancer and one after.
A couple of weeks later, I went to my first thyroid cancer support group meeting. I found other survivors there — people I’m friends with to this day — and learned some of what to expect in the coming weeks and months.
I knew by then that thyroid cancer was then and is now one of the fastest growing cancers, particularly among women in their 30s and 40s. 60,000 people were diagnosed with the disease in 2013; most of them had papillary thyroid cancer, the same type that I did. Most of us won’t die of thyroid cancer, but it will be with us, in some form or fashion — via daily drugs to compensate for our missing thyroids, quarterly and yearly lab tests, the worry when we find an unusual lump — for the rest of our lives.
Seven years ago, I didn’t know how all those facts would come together in a public debate about how to classify and treat thyroid cancer. Some, but not all, of the increased incidence of thyroid cancer can be tracked to more sensitive diagnostic tests; ultrasounds can pick up far smaller thyroid nodules now than in the past. Even if they’re malignant — 95 percent of thyroid nodules aren’t — many of them won’t cause health problems, which has led some doctors to question whether they should be as aggressively treated as they’ve been in recent years — or, in fact, whether they should even be called cancer.
The more I learn about this disease, the more I understand the so-called “wait and watch” approach. Removing an otherwise well-functioning thyroid, as mine was, has a lot of side effects. So, too, do the big doses of radioactive iodine that are often administered to ablate any remaining thyroid tissue. It seems sensible to me that doctors exercise caution before plowing forward with life-altering treatment. (My case wouldn’t have fallen into this now more-gray treatment area; my original nodule was big enough and had spread to a nearby lymph node that even under the evolving treatment guidelines, I still would have had the thyroidectomy and would have received RAI, though probably a smaller dose than the one I got, which fried my salivary glands.)
But the idea that my disease might not have been called cancer? That’s harder for me to get my head around. It’s not that I wanted to say I had cancer, and I’ve certainly bristled at the times in the last seven years that I’ve been told that I had the “good cancer.” There’s no such thing. But if it had never been cancer in the first place?
Well, as I channel my good friend George Bailey during this Christmas season, it makes me think, “what if?” What if today I weren’t marking seven years of “survivorship” but instead seven years since I had a doctor’s appointment that led to other doctor’s appointments, along the same lines as my endometriosis or miscarriages?
I haven’t defined myself by cancer in the last seven years, but it’s safe to say that that diagnosis — and my subsequent recurrence four years ago — changed my life. Some of those changes have been difficult ones; I’ll never take even a routine bloodwork appointment lightly again.
Many other changes have been for the better. The word “cancer,” even when it’s preceded by “fully treatable,” has a way of hammering home the message that life is short. I kept up my blueberry-eating habit, but over time I also traded in a stressful job for one that’s closer to my true loves of writing and editing, with fewer responsibilities and shorter days and more time for the people and priorities that matter most to me. That change altered my career trajectory — in a good way, I’d argue now, especially as I type this post with one hand as a five-week-old infant snoozes in my arms. But I’m not sure I would have made it without the same kick in the butt that thyroid cancer gave me in 2007, and again in 2010.
I’m thankful for the continued advances in thyroid cancer treatment. That they are raising thorny issues and a heated debate about the disease is okay with me if it means more people are paying attention. “Cancer” or not, it’s a life-changer. I’m proud and grateful to call myself a survivor.