So, cancer. It pretty much ate 2015. I’ve got a reprieve, for now. We’re doing quarterly scans, and there’s a chance I will undergo another round of radiation in a year. The combination of surgery and radiation have brought my cancer marker measurements to a very very small number. With some luck the numbers will go to “undetectable” over time as more of the cancer-bearing tissue dies off.
I no longer have a thyroid gland. I must take synthetic hormones daily to stay alive. The base of my neck sags where this swollen lump of flesh used to rest.
After surgery there was still some thyroid tissue in my body. It’s not like anything is truly separate inside a body, so the surgeon got everything he could get out of me, but even a single cancerous cell is a danger. The next step was radiation treatment. That was a lot harder on me than I expected. Then moving to another city on top of surgery and radiation about leveled me.
There are two things about this experience that stand out for me now:
In movies, whenever anyone handles radioactive material, they cautiously approach a thick-walled cylinder. They unscrew a central core out of it and lift it out (cue some dramatically tense music) to reveal the nuclear material inside. Well, I can now tell you those cylinders are real.
Some weeks after surgery and dietary practice to work my body into a deeply hypothyroid state, I could hardly move, I was so groggy. I checked myself into a hospital radiation ward.
Less than half an hour later, a tech in a hazmat suit pushed a trolley into my room. On the trolley was the trademark thick-walled metal cylinder. The tech unscrewed the top like a million-dollar actor.He lifted out the core with enormous care. Inside was a small white paper pill cup with a single capsule in it. I’m sitting right there in my street clothes watching while this guy uses every radiation protocol to protect himself from that capsule.
The tech handed me the pill cup. He advised me to swallow its capsule straight down, not to chew it or anything – as if! Somewhere along the line I’ve learned to swallow most big pills in one try with a good gulp of water, so down the hatch this capsule went. And voila, I became Radioactive Girl.
To date, there is disappointingly little sign of special superpowers.
I stayed in radioactive isolation until another hazmat-suited tech with a Geiger counter said my radiation level was acceptable. I couldn’t be within ten feet of another living being or electronic device without dangerously contaminating them, but I could check out of the hospital.
My boyfriend came to get me. He and a nurse formed an invisible proximity barrier around me as we walked out of the building so no other person,, including them, would be contaminated.
For the next ten days, I lived in isolation in a borrowed house. Wrapped in an old cotton blanket, I touched no furniture. I used my electronics as little as possible, as cell phones and laptops could absorb and keep the radiation I was giving off. My family knew I wouldn’t be able to take calls or emails until the radiation broke down enough for me to come out of quarantine.
Radiation sapped my energy and dulled my senses, so being alone and quiet was no hardship. My boyfriend was a trooper, coming often to see me but keeping a safe distance, bringing me fresh vegetables and news of the outside world. Mercifully, the isotope I swallowed has a short half-life. When it was safe for me to rejoin the human race, I scrubbed the house where I’d been staying, cleaning every surface I’d touched at least twice.
When I stepped out the front door for the first time in ten days, the world seemed bright and free.
With regrettable timing, we were moving to a new city almost immediately. When I first arrived at my new home, I was frayed down to my last thread I could be up and productive for only three or four hours before I had to lay down and sleep. That was mid-summer.
Aches and pains
My hips and knees, and to some degree my feet, have just ached since radiation therapy. My muscles stiffen even when I’m up and walking – walking on city concrete is the worst. After more than five months it’s gotten a lot better. Now regular exercise and visits to my acupuncturist keep the pain and much of the stiffness at bay.
Too, this has thrown me into a dramatic kind of menopause. I could sit perfectly still and have sweat running down my face and dripping off both arms. The acupuncturist has been a huge help.
About 30% of the people who have the kind of thyroid cancer I had have recurrences. This nasty little bugger likes to leave a few cells behind that lodge in lungs and bones. Mine was a particularly aggressive Stage 2 tumor, so while it looks like we got everything we could, it won’t surprise me if we discover cancer has returned. I don’t know what kind of scans I’ll need to keep an eye out for spots in places they shouldn’t be, but you can bet I’ll pester my doctors to find out. In the mean time we check my blood levels quarterly.
At the end of a year, if there are measurable cancer markers in my body, we repeat the radiation experience. Until then I am trying to live a relatively “clean” life – adequate sleep, regular exercise (I’m working on this one), balanced meals, drinking plenty of water, alcohol only in moderation, plenty of laughter and contentment. My energy is returning. I still need to work on mobility. My boyfriend is so supportive, and helps me remember the things I love and give me joy. He also deals with my not being able to walk nearly as fast as I could before all this.
It’s a cliché, but this has brought certain things front and center – my relationship, my family, and exactly how much I want to live.