My Thyroid Cancer story for Thyroid Cancer Awareness Month.
I was standing in line for "Superman", the new roller coaster at Six Flags Great America, with a group of teenagers from the church I served as Minister to Youth when I got the call. The day before I went in for a biopsy of my thyroid, and they told me I'd hear back in a week. It's never good when they call you the next day. Let me back up. I was 24 years old when I found a lump on my neck. My doctor ordered an ultrasound, but the wrong one. Instead of looking at the lump under my chin, the ultrasound tech spent her time down at the bottom of my neck. It was there - as she looked in the wrong place - that she found a tumor. (Papillary Carcinoma)
You know what's not the best thing to hear as a 24 year old man? "You have middle-aged woman cancer." Okay, that's not literally what they said, but a little research showed that Thyroid Cancer was most commonly found in women over 40. (It's occurrences have since been growing in people of all ages and gender.) I had surgery to remove my thyroid and then Radioactive Iodine Ablation afterwards. (That was an interesting two days in the hospital with everything covered in plastic and getting checked daily with a Geiger Counter.) And I was done. So I thought.
When I was first diagnosed, I was told it was the "good cancer" to get because the mortality rate was low and the cancer grows slowly. So I was sure that a little surgery and radiation treatment would knock it out and I'd be done. But this "good cancer" wasn't quite as easy as I thought.
Shortly after my 5 year Cancerversary, my annual neck ultrasound showed a lymph node looking “atypical”. So we started all over again. Let me take this opportunity to petition for a name-change for surgery to remove lymph nodes in the neck. No one wants to go in for a "Radical Neck Dissection". But again, surgery and Radioactive Iodine were my roadmap. In the 8 years since that occurrence, “atypical” lymph nodes on my other side have been a concern, but they’ve been too small to biopsy. I’m just waiting for the day when we check them out too. (Though an “atypical” node isn’t as concerning to my doctors as a “suspicious” looking one, for me it’s meant the Cancer is back.)
I’d had enough of Thyroid Cancer by this time. (2015) I’d had to deal with treating it twice, and many people I knew were diagnosed and would come to me to learn more about the process of treatment. Then, 10 years after my initial diagnosis, my wife Katie was diagnosed with a different kind of Thyroid Cancer. (Follicular Carcinoma) There is nothing "good" about this Cancer. Katie had 2 surgeries to remove the thyroid, and then her own batch of RAI as well. Her reactions to RAI were stronger and she dealt with pain in her salivary glands for about a year, and had more trouble than I did with balancing her thyroid hormones with medication.
It’s an odd thing to go from Thyroid Cancer patient to caregiver and from caregiver to Thyroid Cancer patient as Katie and I have. There’s no doubt that she is a much better caregiver than I am. She’s probably a better patient than me too. (This isn’t too surprising; I always knew I married up.) But our experience with this disease was very valuable as Katie went through it.
Here's what we've learned through dealing with cancer.
There is one Great Physician. Doctors are wonderful, but only One has the power to heal. It was a doctor's mistake that led to finding my cancer. And both times I was diagnosed, the doctors were sure it wasn't going to be cancer. God knew, and looking back, I believe He worked the details to find this hidden disease in my body. And there's a bonus. God will also prove faithful in being with us as we go through difficult times. He has been faithful to us each time we’ve dealt with this disease.
Bad news has a great way of mobilizing God's people. The support we received from family, friends, and church was overwhelming. Everyone needs support when the C word gets thrown around.
Being a "survivor" is a great club, even if no one really wants to join. Everyone has been touched by cancer in one way or another, and those that have battled it have an instant connection. As a pastor, I'm grateful for my experience with cancer every time I sit with a family dealing with the news for the first time.
Cancer support organizations are wonderful; but do me a favor. I already had to deal with having a cancer common in women, but choosing the colors pink, purple, and teal with a butterfly symbol certainly didn't make me want to proudly display Thyroid Cancer Awareness. Give a guy a break. ;)