I’ve read Llama Llama Red Pajama so many times that I may be able to recite it from memory. Near the end of the story (spoilers), Mama Llama reassures Baby Llama that she’s always there in spirit, even if she’s not there physically. It’s a nice line to soothe a frustrated child, but it also strikes me as sad. There are other implications in that line, especially for parents who might be facing a tough battle ahead. Maybe it’s the literary nerd in me, but I read a lot into that line.
But maybe it’s also because I have cancer.
Just after my 31st birthday last year and two days after Christmas, I was diagnosed with papillary carcinoma of the thyroid. Doctors say if you’re going to get cancer, thyroid is a good one to get (at least the kind I have). It’s got a 97 percent survival rate (A+!), and it’s typically treatable with surgery and radioactive iodine. Whether “good” should ever be used to describe cancer is another topic for another day. But suffice it to say I’m hopeful about my prospects.
Still, cancer is cancer.
The “big C,” as my primary care doctor put it. And while I’m more likely to die in a car wreck, probably, than the cancer that evicted my thyroid, it’s still unpleasant – nay, depressing – to imagine a world in which I don’t get to see my kiddo reach adulthood.
No matter how many nutrients we get or how often we exercise, a single unexpected diagnosis can thwart our best laid plans. Thyroid cancer was just the start of what turned out to be a medical-heavy year for me. I’ll spare the details, but I’ve spent more time in a hospital in 2017 than the whole of my previous 31 years on Earth. I even spent Mother’s Day weekend holed up in a hospital bed, idly watching The Devil Wears Prada and wishing I could eat solids.
Pre-kiddo, these medical adventures probably wouldn’t have bothered me as much. But having a kid – a real, live human being who depends on me for literally everything – changes the perspective a bit. I’m no longer free to come and go as I please.
I’m not my own person anymore.
Sure, I want to live for me. I like living. Life’s been pretty good to me so far. But there’s a tiny human in the world who needs me. Who wouldn’t understand the idea that mama llama might have to go away. Who doesn’t know that mama llama gets sick sometimes. My medical problems affect my child, too, even if he’s not old enough to understand them.
Every day, thousands of people live their lives with different diseases, from life-threatening ones to chronically painful ones and ones that interfere with people’s best laid plans. And lots of those people are parents. So far, it’s been easy to distance myself from those other parents with other problems because thyroid cancer isn’t a death sentence (usually). I don’t have that kind of cancer. I won’t have to undergo chemo, lose my hair, get deathly sick, or waste away (probably).
I’ll look the same, more or less, and the only indication that anything’s been wrong is the tiny, already-fading scar on my neck. I suppose it’s a kind of denial disguised as acceptance. This is just the way it is.
All the same, some days, all I want to do is lie in bed and stare at the ceiling.
Not because I’m feeling sick, but because I just don’t want to carry everything that I’ve been carrying. I don’t feel comfortable lumping myself in with “real” cancer patients, the ones who will go through hell and hopefully back. But I’m not healthy, either. I’m somewhere in between. And while you won’t be able to see my battle, it’s still being waged whether I lump myself in with other cancer patients or not.
At the end of this week (September 15th), I’ll undergo a radioactive iodine treatment called RAI. It’s not the same as radiation that you might get for other kinds of cancer. Instead, it’s a radioactive iodine pill that will make me radioactive for a few days. I can’t have any contact with people, especially Arthur, until I return to an acceptable level of radioactivity – because there’s an acceptable level, of course.
Jokes aside, I’m nervous. Okay, I’m anxious. Stoic though I may be about missing a vital organ, I’m overwhelmed by the not knowing. The sheer number of variables in this case and in the years to come intimidates scares me.
September is Thyroid Cancer Awareness Month.
The Thyroid Cancer Association (ThyCa) offers a bevy of educational resources, including this handy infographic:
I didn’t have any symptoms when I went to see my doctor in April of 2016. I just felt “weird,” a fact that I couldn’t explain properly to the nurse practitioner I spoke with. She decided to feel my neck to check for swollen glands – and found the lump that turned out to be cancerous. That nurse will always hold a special place in my heart.
I won’t go into the details of my cancer story here in this limited space. But I will say this: If you have doubts about your health, talk to a doctor. Don’t ignore your feelings, however weird they might seem. Cancer is paradoxically rare and common, affecting nearly 40 percent of adults at some point in their lives. You won’t know what’s up with your health until you find out.