National Cancer Survivors Day (today, June 2nd) is one of those holidays I never really wanted to celebrate. But here I am at the age of 32, and I am a proud to say that I have survived cancer multiple times.
At the age of 3, I was diagnosed with AML Leukemia. My parents took me into the emergency room on Christmas Eve of 1990 because the area around my mouth was blue. I was diagnosed on Christmas Eve. I of course was only concerned with whether or not Santa was going to be able to find me in the hospital…but I cannot begin to fathom the anguish that my cancer diagnosis brought to my parents. Within a few days of my initial diagnosis, my parents were told that I only had about a 20% chance to survive. I cannot begin to imagine what it would be like to be told that I would most likely lose my child. So, my childhood was put on pause as I moved onto the 9th floor at St. Louis Children’s Hospital, and received multiple “heavy duty” rounds of chemotherapy. Let me tell you, I look adorable bald. I don’t have many memories from this time, and honestly I’m grateful for that. But my mom tells me that a major highlight includes one unfortunate incident where I jumped up and down naked in front of the nurse’s station after bath time. The chemotherapy started working, and my body started fighting the cancer. And about 7 months later, I was lucky and I beat the odds… I was told that I was in remission.
I am a proud Leukemia survivor, but I did not survive Leukemia alone. My mom survived Leukemia, quitting her job to be with my 24/7 in the hospital. She was honestly the emotional rock that held everything together. She bathed me and took care of my port. She took care of me day in and day out as the chemotherapy drugs wreaked havoc on my small body. My dad survived Leukemia, working despite such emotional distress to ensure that I had health insurance. He would spend hours of his free time researching Leukemia and chemotherapy drugs and anything else he could find related to my cancer diagnosis. Even though he has never been very religious, he would go and pray in the hospital chapel on a regular basis. The doctors and nurses who saved my life survived Leukemia with me. And 10 years later, I was officially declared “cancer-free”.
However my cancer battle unfortunately doesn’t end there. At the age of 19, I was diagnosed with Papillary Thyroid Cancer. I had gone in for a routine visit with my pediatrician, and a nurse asked me if I knew that I had a goiter. I had no idea what a goiter even was, but I quickly learned that it was an enlarged thyroid gland. Over the next two years, I visited multiple endocrinologists to try to figure out what was wrong with my thyroid gland. I couldn’t get any answers, even after a biopsy. Finally I made an appointment with an ENT surgeon who told me that I would need to remove my thyroid very soon, or otherwise I would end up suffocating because of how large it now was. In November of 2006, I went to Barnes for a thyroidectomy. When I woke up, I was so excited that the surgery had been a success. It was a bittersweet moment because a few hours later, the surgeon came in to tell me that I had been diagnosed with thyroid cancer. I was 19 years old and being diagnosed with cancer for the second time in my life. I was so angry because I had already had cancer, I had already paid my dues! And this time I was an adult, no longer blissfully ignorant to what the word “cancer” really means.
There’s a (not very funny) joke that thyroid cancer is the best type of cancer to get if you have to get cancer. And thyroid cancer normally is EASILY treatable, but I unfortunately fall into this small percentage of people that struggle to beat this cancer for good. Since my initial diagnosis, I have had three additional neck surgeries to remove malignant lymph nodes and nodules. I have done three round of a special type of radiation for people with thyroid cancer called RAI (radioactive iodine). My treatment options have become limited because my body has built up a tolerance to the RAI, and we are putting off traditional external beam radiation for as long as possible since it will significantly affect my quality of life. For now, surgery is my best option, and I will need to have a fifth surgery in the next year or so, as I actively have cancer in my neck right now.
For the last 12 years, I have depended on a medication to survive since I no longer have a thyroid gland. For the past 12 years, my parents have had to endure this battle with me. My mom continues to be the emotional rock that holds us (holds me) together. My dad continues to research anything and everything related to thyroid cancer, and always has a list of questions for me to ask when I go to my appointments. They are truly thyroid cancer survivors too. They take care of me after my surgeries, they help with my daughter when I have doctors appointments, and they have paid way too much money to help me with the financial burden of having chronic cancer. And now, another person is surviving cancer right alongside me, my daughter. At seven years old, she knows what cancer is. She sometimes breaks down and tells me that she doesn’t want me to die. Honestly I hate myself for bringing this trauma into her life at such a young age. But I am also grateful for her because she is the reason that I don’t give up, she is the reason that I keep fighting. She doesn’t know it yet, but she is a cancer survivor too, just like my parents.
I’m not sure if I can consider myself a true survivor of thyroid cancer yet since I am still battling…but hey I have cancer, so I can celebrate today if I want 😉