My family and I road-tripped to Utah and Arizona from our Colorado home this week because I had surgery to remove my thyroid two weeks ago.
Diagnosis: Multifocal papillary carcinoma.
More on that in a minute.
If we had our druthers, the Williams family would have spent Thanksgiving break on a beach in Hawaii. But if there had been complications after surgery or I simply wasn’t feeling up to a big trip, it would have been a lot easier to cancel Sedona hotel reservations rather than four plane tickets to Honolulu.
More significantly, I knew – I just knew – that what would help me best physically and emotionally heal after invasive surgery for thyroid cancer was six days in a car with the people I love most, coupled with a whole heck of a lot of hiking amid spectacular landscapes in a couple of destinations I hadn’t been to before – Utah’s Bryce Canyon National Park and Sedona, Arizona – as well as a photo stop at Four Corners Monument.
Mama often does know best.
Diagnosis and Scheduling Surgery around Travel
My husband and I are walking poster children for the benefits of preventative medicine.
And dealing with cancer on our own terms and timelines.
In 2009, my husband was diagnosed with prostate cancer after he had his PSA (prostate-specific antigen) tested in a blood panel at the local hospital health fair. Prostate cancer is highly unusual in a 41-year-old man, so I am forever thankful he paid an additional $25 or so to get that test in April, have the diagnosis confirmed in early June, and then have his prostate removed in late August.
With the surgeon’s blessing, he put off that operation a bit because a) he needed to wait a few weeks until the biopsy site healed anyway and b) we had a summer of family travel planned: Our family’s first dude-ranch experience, my mom’s lake house in New Hampshire, and a houseboat vacation on Lake Powell trumped the peace of mind of having the surgery done the soonest moment possible (for this slow-growing cancer).
And that worked out just fine; my husband has long been cancer free. (PSA about the PSA: If you are a male over the age of 40 I highly suggest you to screw the guidelines from the American Cancer Society, which says that men who are at average risk of getting prostate cancer should get screened at age 50. Get yourself tested with a simple blood test. Imagine if my husband – who had no high risk factors – had waited until he was 50 for the PSA screen? I shudder to think.)
For me, this July, it was a routine gynecological exam and visit to a nurse-midwife, who felt my neck and told me my thyroid seemed enlarged. Long story short, I spent about six weeks in limbo, undergoing two ultrasounds and two fine-needle aspiration biopsies, and waiting on three different pathology reports that ultimately revealed cancer.
Repeatedly, I was told by medical professionals this is a “good cancer” to have. (Note: To cancer patients, there is no “good cancer,” as my blogger-pal Dana Freeman so eloquently points out in this post. Still, I appreciate doctors’ attempt to put me at ease.) While I admit to shedding a few tears about this life’s turn of events, my upset was centered more around having to determine the best medical care in my rural corner of the world (I don’t have a Johns Hopkins or Mayo Clinic down the road) and the frustration over the time and energy suck that results from scheduling multiple doctor’s appointments and the inconvenience of it all.
Honestly, as soon as I started playing Dr. Google, with that initial ultrasound back in July, I knew this disease was not going to kill me. I’ve seen survival rates for my types of cancer listed at 95 percent or more.
And I have spent little time thinking, “Why me?” since I believe that’s a total waste of brain space. Bad things happen to good people all the time. (To wit: my gentle-soul husband, noted above.) Crap happens. I do not second-guess past decisions: red meat, cow’s milk, water drunk from plastic water bottles, or a lifetime’s worth of dental x-rays. I’ve been hypothyroid and on Levothyroxine with no issues since 2005… is there a link? (I think, no.) Really, though, who knows why I got cancer? I have no interest in dwelling. There is no clear answer. Again, crap happens.
My husband and I have long said to our children, when they have been faced with a problem, “[Quit yer whinin’] what’s the solution?”
In my instance, solution was a total thyroidectomy to get the cancer out.
Problem was, I had stuff to do. Namely, my kids’ volleyball and football games to watch, an annual school fundraising gala I really wanted to be a part of (call me crazy), and three planned trips in October.
Sure, I could have bagged the two work conferences in Las Vegas and Fort Lauderdale, and I might have figured out a way to postpone a long-scheduled trip with my husband to the Dominican Republic, but I also didn’t want this stupid cancer diagnosis to mess with my plans. Especially, again, because I had no less than three different doctors say I could postpone my surgery, and I had absolutely zero symptoms. I felt fine. Screw cancer. I had stuff to do.
So I carried on, and had a fabulous fall, doing everything I wanted to do.
And I had a complication-free, outpatient procedure two weeks ago: I was home Thursday night, on nothing stronger than Tylenol by Saturday morning, talking a 45-minute walk outside on Sunday, and driving, drinking wine and attending a meeting Tuesday night (the driving and drinking wine were not simultaneous).
Plans for a Southwest road trip were full-steam ahead.
Reveling in Southwest Landscapes, Rugged Hiking Trails
I feel most alive when my legs are working, my lungs are pumping, and I’m taking on trails in the mountains, forest, or desert. Of all outdoor activities, I am so happy when breathing fresh air while hiking. And I’m happiest when I’m with my family on the trail. My husband and I have hiked with our children since they were babies in front carriers; I don’t think they love it the way I love it, but they know it’s something I adore, and they will embark on strenuous hikes with their dad and me without complaint.
When we entered the visitor center at Bryce Canyon National Park earlier this week, I told the park ranger I had a couple of hardy teenagers, and asked her to please recommend a hike. My children – ages 13 and 15 – didn’t blink when she suggested the 5-mile “steep but spectacular” Peekaboo loop trail from Bryce Point. Three hours later, after a trek filled with switchbacks, mud, snow and indeed spectacular rock formations, arches and natural “windows.” My daughter proclaimed, “That was a really good hike” and my son said it was his second favorite hike ever (after our rainy hiking adventure in Ireland).
What a wonderful kick-off to our week of Southwest exploration that also included a three-hour guided vortex tour in Sedona, as well as a vigorous hike to Devil’s Bridge in Coconino National Forest and a trek through the forest along Sedona’s West Fork Trail along Oak Creek. I think we covered 16 miles on foot in three days, more exercise than I’d had in the past two weeks. And I loved every single minute.
My surgery scar is healing. It’s in a place on the front of my neck where, eventually, it will just fade into a skin crease. Recovering post-surgery is going quite well, in that regard.
I’ll continue to take Levothyroxine every day for the rest of my life to trick my body into thinking I still have a thyroid, which is the gland that governs metabolism and body temperature. Now I’ll just have to adjust the dose for “no thyroid” instead of “sluggish thyroid.” Not a big deal. I’ll have my blood regularly tested to make sure I have just enough medicine in my system to keep my metabolism chugging along (too much and I might feel manic, too little and I may feel lethargic). Right now I’m feeling great. Really.
The only other bump in the road – and I truly believe this is a bump in the road – is that it is very likely I need one radioactive iodine treatment to ensure that every single offending microscopic thyroid cell is removed from my neck. Since the thyroid cells are the only ones in the body to absorb iodine, I’ll take an iodine pill laced with radioactive material to make sure every single potentially remaining cancerous cell in my neck is killed.
And, no surprise, perhaps, to readers who have stuck with this story thus far, I’m putting off dealing with that radiation – for a few reasons.
First of all, part of the treatment involves going on a low-iodine diet for about two weeks prior to taking the radioactive iodine pill (so any remaining thyroid cells will be super hungry for iodine and super excited to suck it all up – then die). After a month on Whole 30 (no sugar, no alcohol, no gluten, no dairy), I’m pretty sure I can handle low iodine (avoiding seafood, dairy, soy products, chocolate and egg yolks). Since it appears that wine is allowed on the low-iodine regimen, I think I’ll make it through two weeks just fine.
But more significantly, I’m heading to Europe with Viking Cruises in mid December. I don’t want to a) cancel that much-anticipated trip or b) have to watch what I’m eating in Spain, France and Italy. (I’m not that crazy.)
Plus, once I take the radioactive pill, I’ll need to be quarantined for a little while, which doesn’t sound like a whole heck of fun over the Christmas and New Year’s holiday break while my children are home from school, and there is (snow willing) sledding, snowmobiling, and snowshoeing to be done.
So, I’ll finish up with this cancer-treatment business in the New Year.
Yes, that means this medical obstacle lingers, but it’s how I’m finding it’s best for me to handle it. Being able to call some of the shots – control that which is controllable – is how I’m maintaining my sanity through this medical bump in the road. (I refuse to call it an “ordeal” or a “battle.” It is neither compared to what many cancer patients endure.)
Controlling what I can control is how I was able to fully enjoy this Thanksgiving-week vacation with my family in the U.S. Southwest, eternally grateful for so much goodness and happiness in my life.
I am thankful for the handful of friends and family members I told, who worried about this cancer diagnosis and surgery way more than I did. I so appreciate your love, concern and prayers.
I am thankful to my husband for a million things, but most recently for agreeing to spend a ridiculous amount of hours behind the wheel when I told him how much ground I wanted to cover in Colorado, Utah and Arizona this week.
I am grateful for teenagers who go with the flow regularly, and especially this week, even though I know one would have much rather been skiing with her friends on the local mountains, and the other would have been perfectly happy going to basketball open gyms instead of being dragged across three big states in six days.
I’m appreciative of good doctors who patiently answer my questions and don’t blink an eye at my travel schedule.
I’m so grateful for modern medicine that will wholly cure my thyroid cancer, allowing me to spend many more years – decades upon decades! – hiking and traveling and volunteering and doing all the other things I love most in this world.
Life is good. Life is really good.
Disclaimer: I am not a medical professional; if you have any medical concerns see a doctor. But I am happy to share my more detailed personal experiences with thyroid cancer if you’ve got questions. Just give me a shout.
POSTSCRIPT: August 2016
Life is still good. Really good.
In early February 2016 I took a radioactive iodine pill to destroy any remaining thyroid tissue left in my body post-surgery. The low-iodine diet (no dairy, no seafood, no egg whites) for nearly three weeks leading up to the RAI (radioactive iodine) treatment, as well as two Thyrogen shots in the thigh to take my body to a totally hypothyroid state (read: sluggish, cranky, headachey, cold) was more of a pain in the ass than taking the actual radioactive pill itself. And I needed to stay in my guest room (with its own bathroom) for three nights after taking the pill at my local hospital because I was radioactive. (A freaky concept.) I basically stocked the guest room with snacks and drinks, and when I wanted to prepare meals in my downstairs kitchen I’d make sure my family wasn’t in the vicinity, or my husband would kindly leave a tray of food outside the guest room door; nobody came within 10 feet of me that long weekend. I was most happy not only to hug and kiss my family when I came out of quarantine, but also to eat cheese, milk, and chocolate again.
A week later I had a full body scan at my local hospital to see where the radiation uptake took place. This involved lying on a bed with a scanner that moved from my head to my toes over the course of 30 minutes (I brought my own music and headphones); the resulting report showed a concentration of “white spots” around my neck and salivary glands where that radioactive iodine “stuck,” signifying that it went to the right place, killing any residual thyroid tissue. All good!
But really it wasn’t until I had thorough bloodwork done just recently in early August that I felt like I could truly say, “I’m cancer free.” I had my Tg (Thyroglobulin) tested. This “tumor marker” is a protein found in thyroid cells, so if a Tg test comes back negligible (as mine did) you can assume no thyroid tissue is left in the body — at ALL. Since my Tg was less than 0.1, I now feel confident I am looking at cancer in the rear-view mirror.
I’ll have that Tg test again in six months. And I’ll have my TSH tested again, too (that will tell me if the amount of Levothyroxine I’m taking is appropriate enough to fool my body into thinking I still have a thyroid). And I’ll have yet another ultrasound to make sure nothing funky is growing in my neck. Since preventative and follow-up care have worked for me so far, I’ll continue with these regular blood tests and visits to the local cancer center (even though I don’t love setting foot in there), per doctor’s orders just to ensure beyond a doubt that no cancer has returned (highly, highly, highly doubtful). As expected, my bout with cancer has truly been just a bump in the road. And for that I remain eternally grateful.