Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Well, I Almost Made It

I don't expect anyone to read this. Just keeping a record for my own piece of mind. And this seems the appropriate venue.

I came so close to ending 2013 without another copay. So very close. But alas... I didn't make it.

I started having the chest pains a few months ago. Nothing serious, just some tightening here and there. It almost always happened when I was worrying about something, so it was easy to write off as stress. About a month ago, though, it got worse. It went from tight and uncomfortable to legitimate pain. And, instead of intermittent, it became a constant ache. It also kind of radiated down my arm. When I started rubbing my chest like my uncle used to do before a bypass, I called the doctor.

Now, in my defense, I didn't call the doctor sooner because I was fairly certain I wasn't going to die from this one (and, as you can see, I was right). And I was sure I couldn't have a heart problem because I don't have a family history of heart problems... except for the family members with heart problems. And I was busy! New business, two kids, brown dog... lots on my plate. I simply didn't have time for a heart problem or the treatment. As we learned from Cancergate '12, treatments take a whole lot of time.

Also, I'm tired of sitting on these.
I was also pretty sure that the chest pains were reflux-related because someone hasn't been taking her reflux meds but had been on an orange juice kick. The arm pain made sense because I'd picked up some Christmas trees the day before and the weird arm positions that involved would almost certainly lead to a twinge or two.

Be that as it may, there were some things in my past (like recent radiation treatment) that made the chest pain a little too ominous. So, I took my happy self to the doctor. My doctor is pretty awesome. She's the first practitioner who has taken it in stride that "nothing presents normally" in me. Strep test negative? I definitely have strep. Biopsy negative? It's just kidding. Ankle bruised, clicking, and flopping around in the socket? Not broken, just a sprain. She gets it and it doesn't seem to phase her. Unfortunately, my symptoms were a little too textbook for her to write them off as I so desperately wanted her to. My EKG was "OK but not great". She gave me a choice: go to the hospital and be admitted overnight for observation or try to get in to see a cardiologist that same day. I, of course, chose the cardiologist because I had stuff to do that night.

I spent three or four hours at the cardiologist that day. Mostly waiting, but I did have a nice heart ultrasound which, you know, is a bonding experience with the ultrasound tech. When I finally got to see the cardiologist (who is completely awesome and worth the wait), he looked at my tests. He says I have mitral valve prolapse which sounds way cooler than it is but can account for the pain and dizziness. My mitral valve was a bit floppy, I'll admit, but I think it's just got pizzazz. Reduce caffeine, sleep and exercise more. I can do at least one of those. No beta blockers, though, because my blood pressure still runs pretty low. I had to come back, asap, for a stress test.

I talked them into giving me a few days to get things done before I came back. I would be much less stressed, I argued, if I could just get that week over with. No problem. I was scheduled to come back the next Monday but given strict instructions to call 911 immediately if my symptoms got worse. And for the love of Pete, lay off the OJ. But the next Monday, they called and pushed my test back a week. The scanner was broken. The next week, the same thing. Someone would come fix it, but my stress test was pushed back again, this time until after Christmas. I was to come in on the 30th. No problem. I spent the days before the stress test baking, Christmas shopping, and pretending I didn't have a cardiologist.

Yesterday was my stress test and it actually looked exactly like this except with less smiling and I was wearing a Superman shirt. Other than that, this picture is pretty darn accurate.

Actual poster of the test I had. I have no idea what it says.
Hey, did you know a stress test involves a radioactive scan? No? Neither did I.

Again? Really?
I am so damn sick of being in rooms with this on the door.
And if I never see another lead-lined box, it'll be too soon.
The sweet girl launches into her spiel about how safe the test is, even though it's radioactive and there's nothing to worry about. "I'm going to stop you right there. I already know this speech. Just... is this going to affect the radiation that's already in me?"


A quick detour to the scanner to see if the remnant radiation from the spring's I131 would affect the scanner's ability to read this radiation dose. Nope, no problem! Back to the room for an IV and some radioactive injections. I mean, what's one more, right? It's got to be cumulative. Just a little more and I'll be shooting webs. Right?

Injection, scan, treadmill, injection, scan, done.

The results were good. Nothing to worry about now, and I follow up in six weeks.

Seems the arm pain really was Christmas tree-related. The chest pain is better since I've cut way back on caffeine. The sleep and exercise... I'll work on it. For now, though, it's fine. And no more doctors in 2013!

365 Days Later

I wrote this post on November 27th. I didn't post it though because... I'm not sure why.

One year ago today, I was diagnosed with Stage II papillary thyroid cancer. Here's what I've learned since then:

1. Cancer is scary.
Even cancer's lame little brother*, thyroid cancer, is scary. When the doctor first told me I had a papillary carcinoma, I was relieved. I'd been having some weird symptoms for a while (years actually), but none of the tests ever showed anything wrong. I just thought I was nuts. When it came back cancer, at first, I was like, "Woo hoo! I'm not crazy!" (much).
It didn't take long, though, for me to get creeped out. There was this thing inside me. In my neck of all places. I couldn't see it, I couldn't feel it, but it was messing me up. And it could kill me. Statistically, it probably wouldn't. But it could.

That's a (HeLa-IV) cancer cell. Freaky, isn't it?
I didn't know what treatment course I would end up taking. I didn't know what the long term effects would be. I didn't know if the December Disney trip we'd planned and paid for would actually happen. It was a minefield of question marks.

2. Cancer is lonely. 
I've tried to articulate this one a few times, and it's hard to get across unless you've experienced it. You can have the best doctors in the world. You can have perfectly wonderful, supportive family. You can have a community that rallies and helps pick up the slack you drop during your treatment. But, at the end of the day, your fight with cancer is your fight. Nobody is in that body with you. It's you versus this thing that's trying to kill you, and it's lonely sometimes. Kind of like miscarriage. Nobody talks about that part.

3. Cancer is not easy.
Yes, everyone has heard that thyroid cancer is easy. It's the easy cancer. Diet cancer, cancer lite. Nobody dies of thyroid cancer (except the people who do). It's easy to treat. It's "curable". *And whenever you mention it, you have to acknowledge how "easy" it is to "beat". You know who says these things? People who don't have thyroid cancer. If you say these things, you should really stop talking. Probably altogether.

It is absolutely true that thyroid cancer has a high remission rate. Compared to other cancers, its treatment is more straightforward and predictable. No chemo, the radiation is different...  It's usually treatable. Absolutely.
Here comes the "but".
BUT! The side effects are forever. And they suck. It's not just taking a pill every day for the rest of your life and everything is normal. It's more like a permanent state of being just on the verge of homicidal PMS, crippling depression, or breathtaking mania... every minute of every day. Oh, those wacky mood swings, completely independent of whatever is going on. But that's ok, because you took your pill and your numbers are "fine". Think a sweater will keep you warm? Bahaha! That's cute. You're exothermic now! Except being in a warm place doesn't make you warm. Good luck figuring that out. But hey, at least you have the easy cancer. You just don't have much metabolism anymore.
Oh, and that pill? That "all you have to do is take a pill every day and you're fine" pill? It takes months, sometimes years, to titrate that dose. And while you and the doctor are trying to figure it out, you get the dosage rollercoaster. Dose too low? Meh, you didn't need to get out of bed, anyway. And everybody loves being compared to a walking corpse! Dose too high? What's a little heart failure? Come on! It's the easy cancer, after all.  (Hey, look! A sarcastic mood swing!)

For the love of all that is holy, don't call thyroid cancer the "good cancer". You'll, at best, sound like an idiot.

4. Cancer is forever
I actually didn't see this one coming. I thought, hey, I'll do the treatment, get it over with in a few weeks. and then go on like nothing ever happened. Even without the thyroid symptoms, cancer doesn't work that way.
First of all, the treatments take a while. It's weeks and months of scheduling appointments and treatments. Missing work and family stuff. And then, when it's finally over, it's not over! There are follow ups. And then follow ups to follow ups. Cancer's a jerk, and you have to keep checking to make sure it hasn't come back.

It could come back at any time. Of course, every ache and pain, every sickness, everything comes with a shadow of fear that it could be a symptom or a recurrence.

Every insurance form, every new doctor you see, you have to tell them you have a history of cancer. That's one heck of a pre-existing condition.

There is no cure for cancer. Everybody knows that, but most people don't appreciate what it actually means. I sure didn't.

5. Cancer's not all bad.
One year ago today, my life was completely different. I had a different job doing different things. My days were filled with different people in a different place. I'd already decided to leave that life before my diagnosis (actually about a year and a half before the diagnosis), but changing careers was easier when I could say, "I got cancer and changed my perspective". It's easier for people to accept a life change following the C-Word rather than just because you're miserable. It's also easier to cowboy up and make a life change after you've faced the C-Word.
They say you find out who your friends are when you face something like cancer. They also say you find out who your friends are when you start a business. I've done both in the past year, and, for once, I think "they" are right. I lost some friends in this process. I gained some friends on this adventure.

Overall, I am in a much better place right now than I was a year ago. I'm healthier and happier. The people I spend my time around are a much happier group. I have so much to be thankful for, and I take time to reflect on and appreciate my life as much as possible. I'd be lying if I said cancer's wasn't at least partly responsible for that.

Still don't want to do it again, though.