By Jody Bowden
Being an adult with a capital "A" is hard. But, I had settled into that role, albeit begrudgingly, over the past 10 years or so. Along with my husband, we budgeted, found stable decent-paying jobs, paid off student loans, paid taxes, and acted like grown-ups most of the time. Buying a house, getting married, first baby, second baby, third baby, selling our first house and buying our second (bigger) house, getting a dog... Yes, we were adults. Life had a predictable pace; never a dull moment with three kids in the house, but things were good. Still, nothing in my adulthood could have prepared me for hearing the words "you have cancer" when I was just 35 years old. It was one of those moments that become frozen in time, happening in slow motion. I'd replay the doctors' words in my head hundreds of times... "We found papillary carcinoma." Thyroid cancer.
I had been admitted two weeks earlier for outpatient surgery to remove a large nodule on my thyroid. Since the previous ultrasounds and needle biopsy had all been deemed unremarkable, and my thyroid hormone levels were within the normal range, I had little concern. Surgery was uneventful; I rested and recovered at home. Two weeks later, I went for my post-op check. My biggest worry was that my incision would not heal properly and I would be embarrassed to have an ugly, red, angry scar on my neck for the rest of my life. Little did I know... a scar would be the least of my worries. I guess cancer has a way of putting every little worry in perspective.
I felt lucky to be living in the Philadelphia suburbs, being treated by the best doctors at the Hospital of University of Pennsylvania, I thought somehow this would count in my favor when facing the odds of something being seriously wrong. Plus, I am one of the healthiest people I know... I followed all the rules. I drank lots of water, went to the gym sometimes, included fiber in my diet, breastfed all my babies, got regular check-ups with the Ob/GYN, dentist, dermatologist, don't drink too much alcohol (except on book club nights), wore my seatbelt. A cancer diagnosis just did not seem to fit in the big picture of my life.
After the doctor said "the c word," everything else became a blur. What do you do when you hear that kind of news? Do you freak out? Run screaming from the room? I don't think most people do. You sit there, nodding slowly, listening to the voice of the doctor, but not really hearing a word he has said. Holding on to your chair, while the room spins around you. Cancer.
"Another surgery," "Radiation treatment," "Ablation," "Synthroid..." scary, foreign words to me.
Over the next six months, I tried to make sense of my diagnosis. I did the thyroid cancer protocol in its entirety... another surgery (to remove any remaining traces of my thyroid gland), radioactive iodine treatment, which include a week of isolation to prevent my young children, husband and pets from being exposed to the radiation that would be secreted from my body. Full body scans, and finally the exhaustive process of finding the appropriate dose of synthroid that would replace my body's normal production of the essential hormones that regulate metabolism.
Over the same six months... there were the thoughts that terrorized my every waking moment, playing on a constant loop in my head: "I don't want this. I don't want this for my kids. I don't want this for my husband." "This sucks." "How do I find something good in this?" "What am I supposed to learn?" "I have never been so scared." "Why is this happening to me?" For months, when I looked in the mirror, all I could see was the scar on my neck.
The doctors, everyone who has ever had thyroid cancer, they all kept repeating that I was lucky; thyroid cancer is one of the most treatable cancers, especially when diagnosed before the age of 40. I don't think I could ever feel lucky about having cancer. It's a lot to wrap your brain around, however treatable. That has been the most difficult part of it all, the emotional impact. The physical pain has passed, but the fear still remains. Fear of the unknown, fear of a recurrence, or just the fear of realizing how vulnerable we all are. Scary stuff, even for an adult.
Judy Bowden has been cancer free since November 2009.