It’s June, 1991. I just finished my junior year in college, and I was looking forward to the best summer ever. All year long following Weight Watchers, I lost 50 pounds. I raced sailboats six days a week and earned a berth on an all female crew for the Port Huron to Mackinac sailing race. But a lump in my neck turned out to be a bigger deal than I thought. In order to be able to return to college in the fall as planned, I had to give up my berth on the boat to have surgery. My healthy habits gave way to emotional eating. I learned, as I was emerging from my general anesthetic, that I had thyroid cancer that was already in my lymph nodes.
About a month later, when I went for radioactive iodine treatment, I learned I would need another surgery. There was too much healthy thyroid tissue left behind and the treatment would attack the good thyroid tissue and not the cancerous cells. Though my surgeon said I could return to college, two weeks after my second surgery, I was exhausted physically and emotionally. My thyroid levels were too low. I deferred my senior fall semester and stayed home, feeling very unlike myself. I felt fragile, anxious, and often, afraid.
Fast forward to the next summer: I graduated on time (thanks to AP credits earned in high school) and set my sights on the next chapter in my life. I wanted to work full time for the Mystic Seaport, and I got a job as an interpreter (like a docent, only cooler) at three different exhibits. I still didn’t feel like me. Especially when I had to discontinue my replacement thyroid medication–so I could be scanned for further disease–which made me so sluggish I had to leave my job and move home. My scan was negative, but it was two or three months before my thyroid levels were back to functional levels.
Eventually, medication was developed that let me stay on my medication for the scans so I didn’t have to deal with withdrawl. And I was scanned regularly, even during residency. So I was very surprised when, in 2007, more thyroid cancer was found. I had surgeries 3 and 4 on the same day, having to return to the operating room for a postoperative complication.
I have spent more than half of my life with thyroid cancer always looming in the background of my life. Until very recently, I could only see what thyroid cancer took from me:
Some of you know that I just had my fifth thyroid-related surgery in Tampa, Florida. Before the surgery, I was petrified that I would lose my voice. Being a surgeon with a surgical disease is not fun: I know both too much and too little. I imagined the unforgiving scar encasing the nerve responsible for my vocal cord movement. I asked my family and friends to join me for an evening of karaoke. I wanted to sing one last time.
As it turns out, my voice was perfect the minute I spoke after surgery. My surgeon and his co-surgeon not only removed the cancer, they gave me peace and gratitude for thyroid cancer. Here is why I am grateful for thyroid cancer: