It Lurks In The Shadows

I’ve learned a lot about my body and this cancer since 2006.

In the very beginning, I was encouraged and confident that once the surgeon removed my thyroid, and I received Radioactive Iodine Treatment, it would go away – never to return. That’s what they told me….that most never have another minute’s trouble with it. And it’s true… most don’t. Oh how I wish that could have been me. But that’s not how my story turned out at all.

In 2007, I had just started a new job with the county and was excited for my future. I’d only been there maybe a month, so I hadn’t had time to really accumulate any sick or vacation time. Sitting at my desk one morning, I propped my head on my hand and ran my hand over my neck and felt a lump. I pulled my hand away quickly, thinking there’s no way I just felt that. A few minutes later, and again, I felt that lump. I felt the sinking feeling of just complete and utter dread. I was sent that day for a CT scan and as I suspected, those lymph nodes in my neck lit up. I cannot tell you the dread I felt having to do this all again just one year later. I was angry that the surgeon wasn’t more proactive. Knowing what I know now, I would have grilled him about what he was going to do and I would have asked him how many of these surgeries he’d done. But I didn’t. Like they say, hindsight is 20/20. I blindly trusted and it came back to bite me.

How many times have you said, “if I had only known”. Boy, if I had a dollar for every time I thought or said that, I would be living in a mansion on the beautiful Outer Banks of North Carolina….my favorite place in the world, by the way.

But, I did and so, it began again. This time, I had a little help from my Aunt Donna. She’s done the cancer routine herself and we talked and I really wanted a second opinion this time. So, I was able to get an appointment with a wonderful surgeon at UNC Chapel Hill. Dr. Benjamin Calvo. That man seriously has a special place in my heart. There are very few surgeons quite like him in the world, in my humble opinion. He had a sense of humor and he was able to put me at ease like nobody’s business! Great beside manor and so easy to talk to. And skilled. This man’s hands are blessed by God Himself. He. Is. Amazing. After testing and results, we set out to do a radical neck dissection – which entailed removing the affected lymph nodes and the tissue surrounding it. He did this without any lasting nerve damage and took great care of me. My Daddy prayed over his hands before my surgery and of course, I had to crack a joke and ask him if his hands were steady that morning!

After surgery was a different story. They lost me in the recovery room. No, you didn’t read that wrong…..they lost me. UNC has some great doctors but it can be a logistical nightmare sometimes. Hours later, I think my Mama was about to bust down the doors of the recovery room and they finally let her in and they “found” me, in the corner behind a curtain. Of course, I don’t remember any of this except my Mama and the nurse dressing me, all while my Mama is telling that nurse how upset she was. Us Mama’s can be fierce when it comes to our babies!

Down the road a bit, I had Radioactive Iodine Treatment again, after being off my thyroid medication for quite some time. My Thyroid Stimulating Hormone (TSH) was so high, that walking from one side of the room to the other was literally exhausting. Without that thyroid hormone, my body’s systems slowed down to a really slow crawl. The idea is that you starve your thyroid cells of the life-giving iodine it needs and then slam your body with radioactive iodine. Those cancerous thyroid cells suck up the concoction and it kills those bad boys. For most people, this does the trick. It does what it is designed to do – which is kill off those remaining thyroid cancer cells. For me, this did not work. In fact, when they did my whole body scan (WBS) just a few weeks later, I still showed some “uptake” in my neck area. A tad bit of uptake is normal in the thyroid bed….but mine continued to show uptake in my neck. So this time, they hit me with the radioactive iodine (RAI) again and we all assumed that was the end of the story.

Little did I know, this was just the beginning of what would become a thorn in my side in so many ways and for too many years – and would poke me over and over again for years to come.

When you have cancer, something inside you changes. Sometimes it’s for good – and sometimes, it’s not so good. I was angry. Like, REALLY angry. I had all these beautiful, wonderful people praying for me and cheering me on – and inside I was furious. Why is this happening to ME? What did I do to deserve this? Why do these others have it so easy? Aren’t these questions we ask ourselves when we are in the throws of a difficult time in our lives? I haven’t exactly had it easy. Now, some of that is my fault. I admit it. I made bad choices and bad decisions on things that would last a lifetime… and suffered the consequences. But cancer was not a CHOICE. When you couple that with your primary care doctor telling you, “if you have to have cancer, thyroid cancer is a good cancer to have.” I cannot even put into words how that made me feel. It is NOT a good cancer. NO CANCER is a good cancer. No human who calls themselves a doctor should EVER utter those words to anyone. EVER. And THIS thyroid cancer has been far from good to me. It has been hell. And it has been scary. And it has been expensive. And it has been HARD. And it has been TIRING. SO tiring. The kind of tired that sleep can’t fix. The kind of tired when you just want to throw in the towel and say, I’m done! But, I would think about all those who prayed for me, my church family, my earthly family, my dear, amazing friends and now my grandchildren. And let me just let you in on a little secret…. you don’t know love until you have grandchildren.

So, it lurked around for another ten years. I had ten years of freedom from the big C. And it was fabulous. I didn’t miss it one bit. Yeah, I had those yearly tests – where you get a little nervous and hope beyond all hope that it has reared its ugly head for that last time. But, not so fast…. a biopsy here and an inconclusive result there – and it still has a hold on your life. Always hovering in the background making sure you don’t forget it is there.

And 2019 rolls around….and there’s another enlarged lymph node. NOT AGAIN, I prayed. And prayed and prayed. I had moved away from my family and friends after almost 18 years of living in my home town. I was comfortable. Maybe too comfortable. I had gone as far as I could go in my position with work and just felt it was time to move on. As scary as it was, I applied for jobs all over the state and ended up in Wilmington NC. Wilmington is a far cry from little ole Columbia….with it’s quiet, picturesque sunsets on the lazy Scuppernong River. No, Wilmington is alive and full speed ahead all the time. I was homesick. I missed the slow, easy pace of home and the fact that I knew every single soul in our one little grocery store. But I also enjoyed meeting all my new friends and my rommates and digging my fork into the never-ending cuisine that Wilmington had to offer. There was a new fella – who loved the beach and the open water – maybe even more than I did. And I felt like this was exactly where I was supposed to be. Turns out, not for the reasons I had hoped.

Enter, Dr. Peltsverger. Amazing, knowledgeable, unbelievable, Dr. Peltsverger – who made sense of the past 13 years. Through her, I learned that this thyroid cancer didn’t behave as it normally would for others. I learned that I had refractory thyroid cancer – which just means that mine behaves a little differently and refuses to die with what would normally kill it. This was a blessing – and a curse. I was crushed to some degree. Because I knew at that point, there was absolutely nothing I could do – and no matter how strong that RAI was – it wasn’t really going to go away. I had absolutely no control. It is here. Always. Lurking in the shadows. Waiting for that moment to rear its ugly head again. Waiting to see if I still have what it takes to push through it yet again. And she was the reason I ended up in Wilmington. Not some job or some guy. Her. The one who made sense of all that seemed senseless to me for so long.

I won’t lie. I don’t want to deal with this some days. I hate it. And I hate what it has done to my body and to my life. I hate the financial debt it’s put on me. The constant stress it has caused. I hate the days and time it has taken from my life. I hate that it takes time away from my life every single time it comes back….time that I can’t get back. I’m 54 now and time is more precious the older you get. But at the end of the day, I may have cancer – But cancer will never have me. I don’t always feel that way. I have days where I just feel like giving up. But those are few and far between thankfully, because I know God has a plan for me. Oh, I’ve “discussed” this with Him on many occasions. Asked Him if He was sure that He knew what He was doing?? Yelled at Him and asked HIm if He could just give me a break! Asked him WHY… SO many times. But at the end of the day, He sees what I cannot. He knows what is ahead for me, and that’s a good thing. If I could have seen my future 16 years ago, I surely would have opted out. But God has plans for me. I don’t pretend to know what they are. I just know that in the middle of all this chaos that has been my life, He is with me. Always. Through the anger and the tears and the sadness and all the heartbreak I’ve felt. He’s there in the good times too. He’s always been there. He knows me like nobody else. So I just have to trust Him. Which is not easy for me. I struggle with that word every single day of my life. So I’m a work in progress. Every. Single. Day.

It’s ok if you are there right now, my friend. It’s normal to feel that way. It’s 100% normal to be angry and scared and frustrated and sad. But Like my Mama always says, “This too shall pass”. This is not a mistake. This is your journey. Yours and yours alone. And it will not be easy, but He will give you what you need. There will be mountains to climb and they may seem daunting and overwhelming some days. But don’t ever doubt that this is the path you were meant to walk. There is a purpose for your struggle and your pain. I don’t know what that looks like for you but if you’re in the places that I’ve been with this cancer, I just hope you know that you are not alone.

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