The Cancer Files: Who Are You if Not What You Can Do?

One of the more insidious effects of cancer in my life, was the slow degradation of my ability to be what I had firmly placed in the column “Things I Just Am.”  I thought those qualities were an integral and unchanging part of me, but from the moment I was told I likely had cancer, they began to slip away.

For instance, when they shuffled me from one room to the next after giving me the news, scheduled me for a surgery I knew nothing about with a surgeon I had never met, and then sent me out the door: the me I was so sure I was would have never smiled, signed paperwork I didn’t read, and then left.

The me I thought I was would have asked ten thousand questions and insisted on coming back later to discuss surgery with the actual surgeon before agreeing on a date and a plan to move forward.  The me I thought I was would have advocated for myself, refused to sign papers until I was sure I understood them fully, and made sure I had researched all of my options on my own before just accepting what I was told.  Not only did I not do any of that, I didn’t even notice or care that I wasn’t doing any of that.

When I got home and handed Carl the blue folder with my surgery information inside, he was furious.  If you know him at all, you know that fury is an uncommon emotion in his life and it certainly wasn’t what I expected.  I’m not sure I knew what to expect, but I remember being surprised when right before my eyes, my happy go lucky man, grew three feet taller, put on about fifty pounds of muscle, and developed the ability to fly.

Within a few hours, he knew everything the internet knew about thyroid cancer and the surgeon I was scheduled with, he had developed a list of 23 questions for said surgeon, and scheduled us for an appointment prior to my surgery date to ask them.   He was incredible and would maintain his role as my fierce and shameless advocate throughout my treatment and recovery and, well, our married life, as it would happen.  : )

When all was said and done, we cancelled that surgery, found another ear, nose, and throat specialist in the valley who we were much more comfortable with and I went forward with a biopsy (that the original office recommended we skip) to see if any of my thyroid could be saved.  And when I say “we,” I mean my superhero husband who swooped in and saved the day, while I wandered around bemused and generally useless to myself.  I don’t like talking about my time as a damsel in distress (so much so that I never even brought it up in my original Cancer Files).

I wouldn’t realize until much later, after years of wrestling with the question, “Who are you if not what you can do?” that those feelings of helplessness and uselessness and the knowledge that I could not take care of myself (much less be there in the lives of my family, friends, and animals as I was used to being) had devastated me more than the illness itself.

The Cancer Files

Some of you may remember this series from when I was actually going through treatment back in 2011 and 2012.  For those of you who don’t, spoiler alert, I’ve been cancer free going on five years now!  That said, I’ve been rereading my old posts and noting how incomplete they are.  So as practice for writing and to give my story the complexity it deserves, I’m going back to the beginning, to tell it again.

. . .

When I went to my appointment that sunny, spring day in 2011, I told my husband not to come.  He offered, but there was only a two percent or so chance that the nodule found on my thyroid was cancerous; we were not concerned.  I met with the physician’s assistant who was all smiles and he repeated what my primary care doctor had already said as he pulled up the results of the imaging I’d had the previous week;  Roughly fifty percent of women get thyroid nodules and of that fifty percent, ninety eight percent or so are benign.  Then he looked at his computer screen and was quiet a moment before turning to face me and saying,

“I am as sure as I can be without a biopsy that you have thyroid cancer.”

I will remember those words forever because they were the end of everything and the beginning of everything else.

I sat unseeing, unfeeling, and certainly not hearing while he talked a bit more, felt my neck, then had me go sit in another waiting area until the scheduler was available.  She handed me a blue folder filled with information about thyroid cancer and the surgery I would need.  In blue ink, she hand wrote my surgery date (set for three weeks later) in the upper, right-hand corner, smiled and sent me on my way.

Outside, in the parking lot, I sat staring at nothing and wondering what to say to my family.

In the end, I called my husband, told him, then let him know I couldn’t come home right away.  I needed to be alone, to think, to not be touched, to not be looked at with sad eyes.  He offered to tell my parents for me and I let him; I didn’t think I could.

In hindsight, I find it funny that I took myself to the mall.  I’ve never really liked the mall, particularly after working there, but in that moment, being around lots of people but not having to look at or talk to any of them was exactly what I needed.

To be continued . . .