The hero of this story is my dentist, Dr. Matt Stephens. The next time I see him, I’ll be giving him a much deserved hug. Because without him, I’d still not know that cancer was in my body. That it was silently dividing on the surface of my thyroid. Without him, my story may have had a different ending. And so, I am thankful for my dental appointment on that day back in September. It was my regular checkup to get my teeth cleaned and during the examine he noticed some asymmetry along my neck. Because of his excellent skill and good judgment, the wheels were set in motion. I was referred to an ENT. There were initial consults, ultrasounds, results, a biopsy, and more results over the course of several months. During this time, the waiting bothered me on some days, but I felt pretty certain it would all turn out to be nothing. Statistically, ninety five percent of nodules are benign, so the odds were in my favor. And so I named my nodule, Ned. Jamie and I laughed about how he’d been hanging around with us and we didn’t even know it. It eased some of the tension to name this little mass I was carrying around in the tissue of my neck. We coped with the unknown by finding some humor. And then one day, I found out Ned was up to no good. He fell into the dreaded five percent. He was malignant. And so a whole new wave of appointments began to line up my surgery. I wanted Ned dead.
We arrived at the hospital early to get checked in for my total thyroidectomy. I navigated all the hoops that one must go through on the morning of surgery: insurance information, ID bracelets, cups of urine, a general loss of dignity. Finally, it was almost time. I laid on the stretcher clothed in a paper robe. Dr. Conlee leaned over me holding a blue marker in hand. Carefully, he traced a gentle line along the curve of my neck. He leaned back and considered the line. While I couldn’t see any of the markings he made that day, I knew I’d end up looking at his drawing for the rest of my life. Every time I glanced in the mirror, I’d see where his scalpel had broken my skin to remove the invading cancer.
I prayed the morning after my initial diagnosis for hope and love and peace as I watched the sunrise. Each of these has been extended to me along this journey. For that, I am thankful. The surgery went well overall. The 3.5 cm mass had wrapped itself around a vocal chord nerve. Two surgeons worked meticulously to shave and feather the tumor away from the nerve ending. They removed my thyroid as well as many lymph nodes that looked suspicious. When they were finished, they spoke with my family in the waiting room. They explained they were concerned about how my voice would fare. The strength and tone could be affected because of the placement of the tumor. We’d know some information after I woke up from the anesthesia, but it would take time to tell the whole story. We’d find out about the nodes in a few days after the pathology report came back.
Waking up, my throat felt horrible. The intubation had scraped it raw and I couldn’t swallow anything without pain. Medication, food, water, air, you name it. Each swallow was agony. This healed a little bit with each passing day. My voice was weak, but the doctors were pleasantly surprised by the initial tone and strength. This brought hope. The pathology came back days later and while I talked to the doctor on the phone I braced myself for words I didn’t want to hear. But more relief came my way. None of the nodes they removed had cancer in them. Hallelujah! Along marched a measure of peace.
When I came home, the boys were careful and curious about my incision. They looked at it closely. Jackson’s eyes narrowed. He stretched his pointer finger out toward my neck and asked, “Mommy, why do you have that boo-boo there?” A million answers raced through my mind and I searched for one that was appropriate for a four-year-old. At last I settled on, “There was something yucky that was making me sick inside my neck. The doctor took it out so that I will be healthy and strong.” It stung a little to say these words aloud. To try to explain an exhausting truth to your baby. To know that I often wonder about the very same question. Why me? Why must I carry this mark, this boo-boo, along my neck?
The first time I read aloud to the boys I could hardly get through a children’s book. My voice was flat and I was exhausted from the stamina it required to speak at length. I was overcome with worry. I wondered how I would ever be able to teach again? How would I talk on the phone and laugh with friends and family? But each day brings more relief, more peace. My speaking voice is nearly back to normal, though I still cannot yell at all. I tried just the other day and sounded like a screeching mouse as I hollered at the children to not climb on top of the dining room table. I heard Jamie chuckle in the kitchen at the high pitched, weak discipline that I was trying to administer. In loud places and large gatherings, I struggle to be heard at all. I can’t project my voice to a level that is loud enough to be clearly understood. I worry. Hopefully it will be restored. And in another plot twist, it seems my laugh was stolen on the operating table. When I laugh out loud, it sounds like a stranger to me. I have no idea who this new girl is, but Jamie finds her laugh quite obnoxious, which makes me laugh her laugh even harder. If you’re reading this and happen to also be missing your laugh, message me and perhaps we can swap back? My marriage depends on it.
My dear friend Callie sent me a message in the days following the surgery. She’d heard ‘Patience’ by Guns and Roses as she pulled up to work and passed it along to me as a sign that all would be well. I think it was indeed a sign. The lyric, “Said woman take it slow and it will work itself out fine. All we need is just a little patience,” has brought me much comfort as I recover. When I carried laundry baskets up the stairs and was out of breath from a simple task, I reminded myself to be patient. With me. When I read aloud to the kids and heard my exhausted voice, I reminded myself to be patient. With me. When there were a million household chores that needed to be taken care of, but all I felt like doing was crawling into bed for an afternoon nap, I reminded myself to be patient. With me.
I need this reminder because I can’t wait to get back in my old routines, to find my old rhythms. And I want to push and push myself back to the girl I was before. I’m learning that it will take time and patience. So I’m taking it slow. I’m putting the part of me that is fiercely independent on the shelf for awhile and trying to learn that it’s okay to accept help. It’s okay to need help. Jamie stayed home for a week after my surgery and was an excellent mama while I couldn’t be. He carried us along. When he went back to work I felt a measure of panic as I thought about how I was going to survive the day with a 2 and 4-year-old. They are exhausting when I’m healthy. How would I ever do everything that needs to be done? The answer is that I wouldn’t. Grandparents and friends would help with kids and dinners would appear like magic from the most amazing people. I needed help to run errands, to get the rest I needed so that I could recover, to feed my family, to keep the laundry and the dishes moving along. And that is okay. Sometimes you’re the helper. Sometimes you’re the helped.
There is nothing like surgery to help you gain perspective. In the first few days at home you notice how thankful you are for all the things you never noticed you could do before. Your first shower feels divine. You scrub blue ink off your weak body. You peel off monitor stickers that rip hairs from your still sore skin and you wash the oil and grime from your hair. The warm water and fresh scent renew your spirit. You are thankful to be clean. After days of grimacing with every swallow, you rejoice the first time you swallow water and instead of feeling pain, there is just discomfort. You eat an entire slice of quiche and it didn’t take you an hour. You are thankful that you can eat again. You sit outside in the warm sunshine and throw a frisbee with Jackson. You are worn out and exhausted but you make yourself because you love him. You feel thankful for time to love others. You’re muscles start to relax and instead of stacking mountains of pillows under your head at night, you sleep soundly, with your same two regular pillows. The tension slowly leaves your body. You feel thankful for life.
One morning, I woke up and met Parker in the hallway. My hair was disheveled and I’d been wearing the same shirt for three days straight. It hung loose across my shoulders and left my incision with open space to heal. Parker grinned at me and said in his baby voice, “You’re be-uu-ful, Mommy!” It warmed my heart and made me cry all at once because I knew he was speaking from his be-uu-ful heart. His sweet words reminded me there is still beauty in the scars we carry with us. I struggled the first few days as I headed back out into public with how to deal with my incision. Instinctively, I wanted to cover it. To hide. I felt exposed. What armor should I wear? A scarf? My coat zipped high under my chin? A turtle neck? It’s difficult to lay down this armor, this protection, and face the world as yourself. In the raw. With scars and flaws exposed. You walk along feeling like you stand out. You notice the glances that are just a second too long. You feel unprepared for this heartache. You face the dilemma of hiding yourself or exposing yourself with each outing. It’s a difficult choice. One with no right answer. Right now, when I look in the mirror, I see a line of purple skin healing under the cover of a thick strip of glue. I am maimed and saved all at once by this eternal necklace that I will wear each morning, noon and night.
With time, the incision will heal and fade to a thin white line across my neck. A scar will form. I hope each time I look in the mirror I remember that my scar is be-uu-ful. I hope I remember that I am now part warrior. That worlds can change forever with one spoken word. I hope I remember that I’m fortunate. So very fortunate. I hope I remember that we each have an army of helpers around us ready and waiting to jump in and bring love to our door in the midst of darkness. I hope I remember it’s okay to need help. To even seek help. I hope I remember that overwhelming love always trumps overwhelming fear. I hope I remember to stay patient with myself. To extend this same patience to others. I hope I remember to keep a thankful heart for all the simple joys in my life. That offerings of hope and love often bring peace.
There are a few more hoops ahead in the coming weeks. The last of my treatment involves taking a radioactive iodine pill that will destroy any remnant thyroid tissue and hopefully decrease the chance of recurrence. This requires a three day period of isolation which will be strange and unusual as I’m used to much chaos and incessant demands during the hours of my days. While it’s necessary, it still scares me. I suspect this process will shift my course in some unknown way, yet again. Some days I wonder if I will ever feel at ease in my body again, will I ever stop worrying about a lurking cancer, and in truth, I just don’t know. Daily medication and periodic scans will follow me throughout my lifetime. But I have a feeling that one can soar through medication, through scans, through scars and all. It starts in our hearts. In our outlook. And as I navigate these remaining obstacles before me, I imagine that there will be beauty. There will be joy. There will be hope and love and peace. All along the way. Even in the hardest parts.
Sometimes, I pause just a second and wonder if I got it all wrong. When I started this journey, I thought I was falling from grace, that my flight would cease for a while. That soaring would find me again only after I picked my broken self up off the ground. But now, I wonder if perhaps I’ve been soaring all along, right through the branches, right through this struggle. Maybe my feet never even touched the ground. Maybe my wings still feel the rush of air above and below them. Maybe, I’ve been carried along by the hope and love of all the precious souls around me. Maybe this hope and love is a bit of God that is resting in each of our hearts. Namaste, the divine light in me honors the divine light in you.
Isn’t our view mighty grand? Thank you, thank you for helping me soar through.