Good medicine in bad times
The situation was, most of all, a surprise. My nurse-midwife during a routine physical found a nodule on my throat, mandating a visit to a doctor, who mandated an ultrasound, then a biopsy. Still, 95 to 99 percent of such nodules are benign.
So when the good Dr. G said, “I have the pathology report,” and then, “You have papillary thyroid cancer,” I had a ridiculous, enduring compulsion to ask, “Are you joking?”
He told me I’d be OK: “This will not affect the quality or the quantity of your years.” He recommended a complete thyroidectomy, to be followed by a dose of radiated iodine.
I stammered, took scattered notes, and slapped down the phone with a yell.
Why’d I eat all those #!@! almonds?
I told my spouse, called my mother and that night sat down and wrote a pretty stout-hearted email to my far-flung sibs, stepsister and cousin. I knew to keep perspective, knew many people get much worse diagnoses. I wanted to be a good sport, and averred that, given my healthy habits, I was mostly indignant.
The next morning I felt only sick at heart. Enormity sank in. All the appointments, the three new doctors, the unexpected time off work and teaching, the monitoring. The costs. Our high deductible. The radioactivity.
Despite my chagrin, knowing that others deal with more, I slumped through days of bafflement and frustration. I had followed the rules — good food, exercise, clean air — and it hadn’t worked. Other times I wondered where I had erred. Then, after a long week, I turned a corner. It was time to deal, though that resolution was still apt to be interrupted by a random, pop-eyed flash: “Water bottles! Maybe it was water bottles in the sun!” The surgery date drew close, and I’d have gone in early if I could.
Beyond kind friends and family, two things helped more than anything. The first was as simple as taking an interest in someone else. One morose morning I asked my younger sister, Lucy, who lives in Abu Dhabi, how her son Sam was, and physically felt my spirits lift as she wrote back how much he liked his first year in high school and how interested he was in photography.
The second savior was humor. I’ve always believed laughter is medicine for everything from illness to heartbreak, in ways we can’t even fully understand; laughter is elating. Lucy started a Messenger Chat group called Stupid Cancer, everyone jumped in, and it got pretty lively. After the surgeon gave me a nasal intubation (with a false start because of a bone spur in one nostril, from busting my nose in college rugby) to check my vocal chords, my sons said they could have told him those were fine.
The radiated iodine pill or drink — my sister Meg called it the Evil Potion — was to follow several weeks after surgery, and invoke a three-day sequestration protocol in which I must sit, eat, sleep and urinate separately (flushing twice) from anyone. I must not take public transportation, and must ride home in the back seat on the passenger side of the truck. My husband said, “Maybe you should sit in the truck bed.” Lucy claimed I should ride in a trailer.
One morning for me, night for her, we were messaging when she grew tired and said, “I’m going to go read my book even if you do have cancer.”
Another day, talking to the radiology oncologist’s P.A., I asked whether I could hike during sequestration. He hesitated, then said, “Remember you have to use your own bathroom.”
I said, “Ohhh. You mean I can’t urinate in the woods.”
“That’s right. It would be like a radioactive spill.”
My friend Jeff took off on that. If a radiated woman pees in the woods…
Does anybody glow?
Two friends suggested the radioactivity might produce superpowers, and another sent a trailer for an old film in which Chevy Chase, doused through his car sunroof with radioactive waste from a truck accident, develops telekinetic powers.
My sons said, “We love our cancerous, radioactive mother, even if we don’t want to stand anywhere near you.”
I had the surgery, and it was successful. I await the Evil Potion, and can get through that, too.
A doctor friend said, “Don’t worry. You’ll glow, and then you’ll burn out.”
“Femaelstrom” appears on the third Friday of each month. Alison Osius lives in Carbondale, where she is a climber, skier and magazine editor. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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