I Don’t Cherish Every Minute

cancer survivorship

It’s a cliché, I think, that cancer gives you a new outlook on life, a renewed appreciation for each day. Inspirational memes about making each moment count abound.

But just because they’re clichés doesn’t make them false. It turns out that facing your own mortality, and all the dark days that are often a part of it, can help create the contrast that makes so many other days so bright.

Getting thyroid cancer – twice – did change my lens on life. When my cancer recurred, I promised my husband over dinner while on a quick pre-treatment getaway that I’d work less at a job where the hours were too long and the environment too toxic – and I did. (And then I found a new job, where I don’t have to fight so hard to work normal hours and I don’t carry anxiety home in my tote bag.)

I took steps to tune in to the good. I practiced gratitude, writing lists of things I was thankful for every day. I got high on the endorphins that running brings. I cooked good food and drank good wine.

But cherish every minute, and make the most of every day? Nope. Not while I was in active treatment, and not today, years later. That’s a lot to ask of a person, and a lot of time to be “on.” It’s a standard I can’t meet. I had cancer, but I’m no Pollyanna.

Because some days I just want to veg out. I want to hang out in sweatpants and watch too much TV and eat food that’s not particularly good for me. They’re days that I know I won’t have much to show for. I won’t have made the most of every minute.

And then there are the less-than-good days — the days where I’ve slept little the night before, where my patience wears thin, where the food spills on the floor AGAIN. They’re the days when nitpicking replaces gratitude, when I’m too short with everyone in my house, when I yell too much. Rather than cherishing them, they’re the days that I’d just as soon forget.

Sometimes I feel guilty when I hear someone say that cancer has made them grateful for every minute. I’m happy for them, and puzzled for myself. What’s wrong with me that cancer didn’t leave infinite patience and grace in the place of my now-missing thyroid? That I continue to get annoyed in traffic and sigh in long lines, and yes, even still sweat the small stuff?

And then I cut myself some slack. I remind myself that I wasn’t perfect before cancer, and I’m not perfect now. And I try to remember, after I watch some mindless TV, to write a few good things in my gratitude journal.

How do you live through your young adult cancer survivorship?

It Should Get Easier

thyroid cancer

Eight years on, I know the drill.

After the interminable wait in the radiology department waiting room, I’m led to a small room with a narrow bed next to an ultrasound machine.

I dutifully wore a v-neck sweater so I wouldn’t have to change into a gown. After removing my necklace and earrings, I lay down on the bed, pillow positioned under my shoulders to maximize discomfort and neck accessibility. Unlike the (sometimes) happier sonogram rooms of obstetricians’ offices, this room features no screen on the wall with which to follow along – not that the angle of my head and neck would allow for screen watching anyway. I stare at a spot on the ceiling behind me.

As the ultrasound tech preps the computer, he asks the same questions as those before him:

“Have you been here for an exam before?”


“Why are you having this sonogram?”

“Thyroid cancer.”

“When was your diagnosis and your thyroidectomy?”

“November 2007. January 2008.”

January 2008. January 2, 2008, to be specific. Eight years ago this month. I’ve probably had at least 25 neck ultrasounds in the time since.

This process should get easier. But it hasn’t, not yet. I don’t know that it ever will, now.

This is technically a routine test, the sonogram that I get twice a year before meeting with my endocrinologist. My last many such sonograms give me no reason to believe that this one will be anything out of the ordinary.

But as I lie on the bed, my head craned up and to the left as the warm ultrasound gel is applied and ultrasound tech slowly moves the gizmo along the chain of lymph nodes under my right ear, I can’t help but wonder what if. What if this is the time that the trend of “nothing to worry about here” changes? What if rather than the radiologist’s reading of “no measurable change” I receive a report of “more follow-up needed”?

I remember that in my haste this morning, I didn’t give my son a kiss goodbye. Why didn’t I give him a kiss goodbye? Why did I rush?

The ultrasound machine beeps as the tech clicks, registering a picture for the radiologist to assess. I never know whether to worry about the number of clicks and beeps. Do more of them mean there are more potentially suspicious lymph nodes in the pictures? Or do they simply mean that I’ve gotten an especially thorough technician?

Sonography is both an art and a science, my doctor has reminded me. What one sonographer picks up in one exam, the next may not see. Instructed to turn to the right, I stare at the clock on the wall and the minutes tick by. Have I gotten a particularly artful technician today? Or a new and inexperienced one who needs more time to determine what he’s seeing?

I can’t know the answers to those questions. And I can’t ask questions, because the technicians aren’t supposed to tell you what they’re seeing. (Sometimes they do, anyway. I’ve been on the winning and losing side of those technician diagnostics, and I’ve decided that I’d rather wait for the official radiology report.)

So I keep quiet, waiting for the beeping to stop, to be given the OK to get up, to wipe off the ultrasound gel that has now melted and oozed down my neck, to put my jewelry back on. To be told that my doctor will get the report in a day or two.

To open the door and head back into my regularly scheduled day, already in progress.

I wish this would get easier.

Go here to see what it is like having a CT scan.  Have you had a sonogram before during your cancer survivorship?

8 Years Of No Good Cancer

no good cancer

It’s been eight years since I put on the necklace, eight years since I felt the lump under my skin. And it’s been almost eight years since I first heard those words: “Michele, it looks like you have thyroid cancer.”

It was a Friday afternoon in late November, two months after my wedding and the day before my husband and I were planning to go pick out our Christmas tree. My doctor said those words, and then she made two calls, and just like that, I had appointments with a surgeon to remove my thyroid the day after New Year’s and an endocrinologist to manage my care forevermore after the surgery.

My husband and I drove home in mostly stunned silence, but for my confused questioning: “I thought I was doing everything right. I run. I don’t smoke. I eat blueberries, for god’s sake.” I knew all too well even before that day that cancer doesn’t discriminate, but I still never expected that it would happen to me.

My thyroidectomy was a little more than a month later, but on November 30, 2007, I became a cancer survivor. I felt physically just the same as I had the day before — which is to say, completely fine — but my life had been separated into two distinct periods, one before cancer and one after.

A couple of weeks later, I went to my first thyroid cancer support group meeting. I knew by then that thyroid cancer was then, and is now, one of the fastest growing cancers, particularly among women in their 30s and 40s. More than 60,000 people will be diagnosed with the disease in 2015; most of them will have papillary thyroid cancer, the same type that I did. Most of us won’t die of thyroid cancer, but it will be with us, in some form or fashion — via daily drugs to compensate for our missing thyroids, quarterly and yearly lab tests, the worry when we find an unusual lump — for the rest of our lives.

But there was a lot more that I didn’t know that day. I didn’t know that the radioactive iodine treatment I’d receive to destroy the thyroid tissue that my surgery left behind would damage my salivary glands and leave me with permanent dry mouth. I didn’t know that that treatment wouldn’t kill all the cells, and that just two years later, another cancerous nodule would grow in the same spot that the first one did, requiring another round of treatment. I didn’t know how to help my family and friends manage my diagnosis and treatment and all its aftermath.

I didn’t know that too many people — some doctors included — continue to think, and to tell thyroid cancer patients, that thyroid cancer is “the good cancer.”

There is NO good cancer.

I haven’t defined myself by cancer in the last seven years, but that diagnosis changed my life. Some of those changes have been tough ones; I’ll never take even a routine bloodwork appointment lightly again. Other changes have been for the better. The word “cancer,” even when it’s preceded by “fully treatable,” has a way of hammering home the message that life is short.

I kept up my blueberry-eating habit, but I also traded in a stressful job for one that’s closer to my true loves of writing and editing, with more time for the people and priorities that matter most to me. That change altered my career trajectory — for the good, I’d argue now, especially as I look at my two kids, both born since my recurrence. I’m not sure I would have made it without the nudge — no, the kick in the butt — that thyroid cancer gave me.

It’s been five years now since my last round of treatment, and I’ve pivoted to figuring out life after cancer, though “after” implies a greater level of completion than I feel. I still have a lot to learn about thyroid cancer and what it means for me and my family — lessons I hope I’ll have a lifetime to learn. In the meantime, I’m proud and grateful to call myself a survivor.

Find out more about thyroid cancer, including how to conduct your own neck check, as well as information for patients and caregivers, at the Thyroid Cancer Survivors Association.

Michele is a wife, mom of two, cancer survivor, and writer living in Washington, D.C. She blogs about life after cancer and infertility — as well as random musings on life as a transplanted Bostonian, a devoted fan of the Red Sox, and an infrequent and slow runner — at A Storybook Life. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

Have you heard the phrase, “you have ‘the good cancer'” too?

Welcome Michele!

Lacuna Loft is excited to continue introducing some guest bloggers! These great folks represent a variety of perspectives on the myriad of topics covered here at Lacuna Loft. Before everyone starts really getting into the nitty-gritty of all they have to say, we wanted to introduce them a bit. Without further ado, here is Michele!

One day I was a 29-year-old newlywed, just back from my honeymoon. The next I was still that 29-year-old newlywed — with a lump in my neck that I’d found while putting on a necklace. Two months later, I got the diagnosis: papillary thyroid cancer.

I had my thyroid removed and radioactive iodine treatment. Two years later, the cancer came back. I’d been a professional writer for years, but this prompted me to I start writing for myself. At first, I wrote my blog, A Storybook Life, to update my family about my treatment. And then I realized that my writing was part of my treatment; it gave me an outlet and a connection to other people facing some of the same issues.

I passed the five-year anniversary of my last treatment in July 2015, and now I’m the mom to two kids, too. But my cancer story isn’t over; I hope to have decades of survivorship ahead of me. So, I’m still writing — and reading. I’m glad to be part of the Lacuna Loft community.