In late 2010, I had a headache. Yeah, yeah, I know what you’re thinking: Big whoop, take some aspirin and GTFO, right? But this wasn’t just any headache. It was a supermegahyperawful headache. One so bad, I’ve referred to it as the “Cataclysmic Headache Event” ever after. Now, I am no pansy when it comes to pain. I’ve been high fived by bikers for giggling while being tattooed over my ribs/spine, I’ve broken and/or dislocated more bones than some mammals possess, and I tend to be, over all, pretty much of the “glue it back on, use duct tape to stop the bleeding, and suck it up” mentality. But this was different. This was a pain that stopped me, quite solidly, in my tracks. Now me being me, as soon as the pain let up I dismissed it as being an isolated incident. I’d just moved to a brand new city in a brand new state. I was starting my life over from scratch and working more than was healthy besides. That had to be adding up, right? That headache was the combined stress taking its toll, my body’s way of telling me to take a day off and get some rest, which I did.
Fast forward a few weeks. I’m at work, doing my regular afternoon thing, when suddenly it’s BACK! Like that monster movie slasher they should’ve decapitated before throwing into a wood chipper, the Headageddon has leaped from its hiding place and careened to the forefront of my consciousness. And just like said slasher, all I want to do is kill it with fire. And dynamite. And an entire fleet of battle ships. And the cast of The Walking Dead (Hey, Daryl is pretty badass…). But at any rate…
A friend of mine at work said that I should probably see a doctor about it, since it had happened more than once. I set aside my rampant dislike of all things medical and went to the walk in clinic down the road from the office. The diagnosis? A sinus infection. Yay? I took some antibiotics and bought decongestants like they were going out of style. That seemed to solve the problem, at least for a little while. Six weeks or so later, the headache came back. Again. It’s hard to keep a good pain down, right? Or at least one that makes it feel like rabid wildebeests with adamantium claws who’ve had too much caffeine are careening around inside your skull and playing whirligig with your optic nerves. This time I said screw it, and I made an appointment with an actual doctor.
Doc said I had migraines, which was not at all surprising, as I had a few friends who’d suffered with migraines and that seemed to be their general consensus, too. But the medication they wanted me to take had lots of risks for nasty side effects and I wasn’t too keen on the idea of taking medication every single day to prevent something that happened only once every couple of weeks. So I declined the prescription, read up on migraines, and did everything I could to avoid my supposed triggers. La la la, everything was super happypants and I pretty much forgot the entire thing had ever happened. I had so much going on it was easy to dismiss. A budding writing career, an active social life (read as: Swimming the shark and douchefish infested waters that are the Boston Dating Scene and having actual real life human friends to hang out with), two jobs and the life I was building for myself… Why worry about something that had been “fixed”, right?
Hit that >> button on your remotes again, kiddos. Or, if you prefer, set your DeLorean to early summer 2012. I’d been living with my boyfriend for a few months. Life was good. I was beginning to settle in to a home, a life, something long term and stable. Happy. Generally, people who intend to reside in a place for a while have things like dentists and doctors. As I had played nomad for pretty much the entirety of my existence, this was a new concept for me. I was used to going to hospitals or clinics only when I was in dire straights, and relying on a combination of WebMD, Google, and the Whole Body department of Whole Foods whenever I was in minor discomfort. Check ups? Physical examinations? What was I, some sort of science experiment that needed to be monitored constantly lest I blow up and take out half of China?
As it turns out, yes.
I developed an unrelated, but unpleasant, persistent hacking cough. I went to an actual doctor in the actual town in which I actually lived to check out said cough. And the actual doctor, in feeling my throat for enlarged glands, found something. Nothing. Of course it was nothing. Just a lump. Thousands of people have lumps on their thyroids. Thyroid nodules are very common and increasing in numbers all the time. It was nothing to be worried about, despite the fact that I was a tad on the young side, because an overwhelming majority of those nodules (Upwards of 90%, I was told) are completely benign and require no treatment whatsoever. But, you know. Better safe than sorry, let’s check it out. She talked me into an ultrasound of my thyroid “Just to rule it out”. Sure. Fine. Whatever you want, Doc. At this point I wasn’t even slightly worried. So they’d found a lump. That was nothing, right? The chances that it was actually something malignant were extremely low, minimal really, especially in someone my age with absolutely no family history of cancer, thyroid or otherwise.
Ultrasounds are kind of unpleasant. Someone who pretty much refuses to meet your eyes lubes up some area of your body and rubs a cold metal device over it in order to obtain a picture of whatever is inside, be it a baby, a nodule, a tumor, the second coming of The Great Old Ones, your secret twin half brother from outer space… you know, the usual. The pictures get sent to someone else in a far away land for analysis and then sent back to your doctor, who then calls to tell you that yeah, good to have gotten it checked out, but it was totally benign and not even a little bit weird. Only that’s not what happened in the version of this tale that resides in some approximation of reality. As it turns out, that megaheadpain in 2010 was the result of a tumor pressing up against my carotid artery, which impeded blood flow whenever my blood pressure spiked… which it did when I was stressed… which didn’t really happen all that often… so it was easy to ignore…
The doc called me into the office for a conversation that went something like this:
“I received the results of your ultrasound this morning.”
“They’re… well, they’re inconclusive. Irregular, but not really indicative of anything specific.”
“We’d like to run more tests. You know, to rule things out. The chances of it being anything worth worrying about are very low, but we need to be sure.”
And thus began a nightmare period of ultrasounds, CAT scans, and MRIs. They just kept coming back irregular but inconclusive. So my doctor made the decision to get A Specialist involved. I had a meeting with the specialist that went something like this:
“I looked at your ultrasound results myself before you arrived.”
“So I’ve been told.”
“That doesn’t mean anything bad. Chances of it being malignant are very, very low. You don’t have any risk factors and you’re very young.”
“I’ve heard that before, too.”
“So, just to be safe, I’d like to do a biopsy.”
BIOPSIES ARE FUN!
They suck, like a wrathful vortex spawned by an unliving god from hell, they suck big time.
A man you’ve never met before in a white coat comes in and stabs you in the neck with a local anesthetic. Then, while waiting for said shot to kick in, he proceeds to tell you how you have nothing to worry about, that he’s done thousands of these and they almost always come back as nothing. (It’s amazing to me how many times the words “nothing” and “nothing to worry about” were thrown around, but no one had said The Terrible C Word yet at all). You mutter something in response, being careful not to move your head because you’ve been positioned in such a way as to maximize exposure to your throat to the Big Scary Overhead Lights that remind you of alien autopsies, the X Files, and every other horrible dissection you’ve ever seen. After a few minutes, he pokes your neck again and asks if you can feel it. You mumble something dismissive that you don’t really remember because right now all you’re thinking about is how much you’d like to have this over and it wouldn’t matter if they wanted to disembowel you with a rusty rake if they’d just do it already and let you out of this room. The guy in the coat holds your head down while he sticks a needle that’s about 7″ long into your neck and pokes around until he manages to spear the irregular looking mass, then he fiddles with it for a while, presumably to scrape cells into the end of the Giant Spearlike Needle Of Doom, while you try your best not to stare at the ultrasound screen behind your head, like some kind of window into your own guts, but it’s really all there is for you to look at, and you can’t bring yourself to look away cause the only other option is to close your eyes, and without the distraction of visual stimulus, you might be forced to think about what “irregular” really means, and why none of these doctors have been able to tell you anything conclusive after all these tests.
After Coaty McStabberson removes the needle, his assistant presses a swatch of gauze against your throat, checking it every few seconds to see whether or not it’s still oozing blood. When she’s satisfied that you aren’t going to bleed out in the hallway once she removes her hand, she cleans off the area, slaps on a bandage, and releases you out into the world. To wait.
While you’re waiting, your neck will swell up and bruise so that you look like someone finally had enough and tried to choke the life out of you. People WILL ask about it, so invest in scarves… either that or practice your autoerotic asphyxiation jokes.
So I had a biopsy. But that’s not really a big deal, right? It was just to rule something out. Everything was fine.
Except it wasn’t fine.
It was irregular.
Let’s do another biopsy! Sing it, folks! Second verse, same as the first… only this time we want to be super duper sure we get oodles of tissue, so we’ve got a pathologist standing by! That means you have to hold still after we take the needle out, while the short guy in the corner looks at a slide of your very own tissue to be sure we have plenty of cells. Also, we’re going to approach the mass from the OTHER side of your neck, just so we can be sure we’ve got a good angle on it. Oh, yeah, we’re going to be working very close to your carotid artery this time, so be real careful not to move, mmmkay? And we have to press down on your windpipe for a minute, if that’s alright? Just raise your hand if you start to feel faint.
I wasn’t thrilled with the procedure the first time, the silver lining being that at least it was over and done with and I wouldn’t have to go through it again. Surprise.
And so I waited.
And on the third day, a phone call.
I really shouldn’t have been surprised, I suppose. It’s not like it was anything new. After all, I’d heard the word “Irregular” so many times I was starting to think I was judging a 4th grade spelling bee. So, once more, I had no answers. But this time, a question:
“So what now?”
“Well, the only way to be really sure is to get in there. Physically. Remove it.”
“Half of your thyroid.”
Half of my thyroid.
“Only half? Why only half?”
“Well, you have more nodules on the left side. The risks of surgery are much lower if we only take half. You might not even need replacement hormones.”
“But what if you find something bad? What if it’s cancer?”
“The chances of that are very, very low.”
“But what if?”
“Then we’d need to go back in and remove the other half.”
“And if it comes back fine, I’m done with this?”
“Well, no. There are nodules on both sides. We’d have to monitor them.”
“Biopsies every 6 months.”
“Why not just take it all now and be done with it?”
“There are major risks involved.”
“The way I see it, there are major risks either way, but taking the whole thing means it’s done, right?”
And thus, on September 18th, 2012 I bid farewell to my thyroid, a gland that had been with me since birth and had served me fairly well for lo these many years, until it decided to get all lumpy and irregular. I’d have a scar. I’d have to take pills every day for the rest of my life. But the nightmare would be over, at least. No more worrying about what irregular meant, if every time it was a little hard to swallow or I coughed and my throat felt funny if it was cancer sinking its fangs into my neck. The scar would probably be minimal, and on someone as fair skinned as I am, maybe not even noticeable at all. From a distance. At night. If I wore a turtleneck. And a parka.
But that was OK, because it would all be well and good and after a week to 10 days of recovery time, I could get back to living my life as normally as I ever had, just with a few minor changes.
They still had to cut into the thyroid itself and poke around with their creepy little pathologist fingers to determine what the heck had gone wrong in the first place. But what did I care, right? The thing was out of me. I was free.
But I wasn’t, you see.
That terrible C word has reared its ugly head for real this time.
Yes, I had thyroid cancer. Papillary Carcinoma, to be exact. And yes, it was removed in entirety along with my thyroid. I was cured. Completely free of cancer.
Well, free of THAT cancer.
There was another one.
What are the chances, right?
Pretty fucking astronomical, it turns out.
In addition to the PapCar, I also have Follicular Thyroid Cancer. That’s right. Have. As in still there, still in me. Waiting and growing and spreading. How far, I don’t know yet. My medical team has opted to wait until I’ve been deemed healed from surgery before taking any further diagnostic or exploratory measures. How ironic is that? I have thyroid cancer still and I don’t even have a thyroid anymore!