Tuesday, December 31, 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.

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