Sunday, January 25, 2015

So Last Monday I Was Diagnosed With Thyroid Cancer

So last Monday I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. Jenny says my face turned white as a sheet when my Ear, Nose, and Throat doctor broke the news, but I don't know how she saw anything because she was in tears. Rosie was there, too, oblivious to the gravity of it all. It was a surreal fifteen minutes. Deep down, as the doctor explained that fortunately, thyroid cancer is very treatable, I couldn't help but mentally pat myself on the back because I fucking called this shit.

In early November I started worrying about a lump on my neck. Not huge, just a weird, hard little lump an inch away from my Adam's Apple that moved when I swallowed. I thought it had been there for a year, maybe more, but now I don't even know. The entire history of the lump is lost to the world. But for some reason or another, I started panicking and googling "Neck Lump" on a regular basis. One night I felt my blood run cold after using the internet to diagnose the lump as an enlarged thyroid nodule (because no one has ever been wrong about their own internet diagnosis). I got into bed that night and whispered to Jenny, "I think I have thyroid cancer." She said, in so many words, shut up, you don't have cancer, go to sleep.

That's the appropriate response. I'm a massive hypochondriac and chronic worrier. In my early 20s I effectively willed my right testicle to have an inflammation called epididymitis and spent months thinking I had AIDS, testicular cancer, or some other horrific STD. As soon as the blood tests came back clean, the pain went away and everything went back to normal. Bullet dodged.

Not so much this time around. The day after coming up with this shocking internet diagnosis, I went to the doctor. "Your thyroid is down here," she said, indicating that no, it wasn't an enlarged thyroid nodule. It was definitely weird, but probably nothing to worry about. I went in for an ultrasound two days before Thanksgiving and, while they did notice a couple of small nodules on my thyroid, they weren't large enough to cause concern. They deduced that the lump was a lymph node within normal parameters and probably nothing to worry about.

I breathed a huge sigh of relief! And yet, the following Monday I got a call from the doctor saying the lump warranted further evaluation and I was being referred to an Ear, Nose, and Throat specialist. A couple weeks later I was sitting down across from a very chill and capable doctor who reassured me that it was probably nothing, although the fact that it moved meant it probably wasn't a lymph node since lymph nodes don't move. He ordered a CT scan. With the exception of the lump, the CT scan came back normal. "You're the interesting patient," he said. "You're a mystery." "I don't want to be a mystery," I said. He almost let me walk. To go on with my life, monitor the lump, and see if it got any bigger. He didn't feel right about the lump's mobility, so he ordered a biopsy to see if, once and for all, we could figure out what the fuck this thing was.

The biopsy was one of the worst experiences of my life. It wasn't painful, per se, but definitely worse than the root canal I had a couple years back thanks to the weird pressure of the needle interacting with the lump and the emotional terror of not knowing if I was going to feel a sharp stab of pain in an unanesthesized zone. I soldiered through it and a shut my mind off for Christmas. After the holiday, I went back in to the ENT who, once again, couldn't figure out what the hell it was. He said the pathology report didn't show any indication of the lump being malignant, but wanted to take the lump out in the name of thoroughness.

A week later I was at the ambulatory surgery center at Olathe Medical Center chewing my nails in the waiting room. I should note that, since these procedures spanned two years, I was guaranteed to be on the hook for $6,000 in medical bills because the American Healthcare System gotta get paid. The surgery was a rousing success. They were able to remove the lump no problem and I go to go home, take painkillers, and watch movies for the next couple of days before going back to work. Everything was healing up nicely and I felt like I'd had some black, toxic weight lifted. The lump that had caused me so much stress over the last few months was gone, and after the post-op followup where he would tell me it was a benign lump as expected, I would get on with my life.

But he told me it was thyroid cancer. My brain frosted over as he explained everything. The lump had a malignancy stemming from those little thyroid nodules from the ultrasound. "They're so small, I wouldn't have even biopsied them," he said. He then went on to detail the treatment, which Jenny had him write down because jesus christ, when someone tells you you have cancer you're going to be useless for a little while. He assured me that they had a very successful treatment plan in place for thyroid cancer. They would schedule me for surgery the following week to remove the offending gland. A few months after that, I would take a pill of radioactive iodine and hole up in isolation at the hospital for a few days because my body would literally be emitting radiation. The radioiodine targets any thyroid cells left in my body (he referred to it as a "broad leaf killer") without damaging anything else and, assuming they get it all, that's that. After that I follow up every few months until I get sick of coming in to have them tell me everything's fine.

Currently, everything is not fine. The last week has been spent both not trying to think about it and go about my life business as usual, the other half has been trying to cope with the idea of not seeing my daughter grow up. That's all I care about. They say children make you cope with your own mortality, and that's true. When Rosie was born Jenny and I became her secret service. Any parent who wouldn't take a bullet for their kid should probably have their kids taken away. That's just what you do. Your life exists as a supporting role to the child. The only reason I give a shit about my own life anymore is because I know I need to be there for Rosie, and the thought of not being there for her, of seeing her grow, of watching her make breakthroughs and mistakes is the realest horror I've ever known.

Surgery is tomorrow at 8:30 AM and while I'm not so scared of the surgery, I'm scared of what they'll find. The trend of going to the doctor a dozen times and getting inconclusive and ultimately, bad news has my dread sensors tingling. A week after the surgery I'll go in for a post op and get the pathology reports from my dear, departed thyroid and I'm bracing for the worst because that is my natural way of thinking. The biggest thing I've learned from this experience is that the universe in no way gives a single shit about any of us. It is cruel and it is chaos, and there is something beautiful about that. That's the only way I was able to get to acceptance.

Acceptance came quickly. It was an unseasonably warm day and we took Rosie for a stroll on the Indian Creek Trail after the appointment where Jenny and I tried to make sense of this. Was it all the dental X-Rays I've had over the years or just shit luck? Bad genes? It didn't matter, because it was happening and the only thing to be done was whatever the doctor ordered (both Jenny and I scoffed loudly when he said, while he didn't approve, if we wanted to try a homeopathic approach that was our choice).

There's that thing they say about how atheists will change their tune when they're staring down the reaper, but if anything my tune has even more clearly tuned in on the idea that there is no God. I've become more spiritual over the years and wouldn't technically classify myself as an atheist because I'm open to there being something transcendental and completely incomprehensible waiting for us after we die, but all Gods seem preposterous now more than ever. Though I ironically adopt a fatalistic worldview with a karma-based moral code, I understand that shit is just totally fucking random. Any meaning in life is the meaning we create. It's in the relationships we forge in defiance of nature's will. The fact that I can even write this blog post is a natural miracle.

Humans evolved, and evolved imperfectly in a way that one's organs and glands can turn into ticking time bombs at a moment's notice. I look at pictures of myself from the last few years and wonder when the cancer was present, or if it had always been there. Something uncontrollable and eventual that was to be met with anger, confusion, and despair but ultimately, something that could only be accepted. And that's where I've been this past week, but I'm still scared as shit because this shit is scary. Still, to paraphrase one of America's greatest poets, the waiting is the hardest part. That's where the despair breeds. In the Schrodinger's Cancer that is either an easy enough fix or something much worse.

It helps that I have an adorable, perfect daughter to keep me positive. I have to be positive for her, and watching her learn how to drink water on her own and learn how to stand on her own have been little reminders of why I fight. I don't know how you fight cancer, that's something they like to show you in movies but it seems preposterous that one person could be more of a fighter than the next. Regardless, I feel like a fucking gladiator or some shit, ready to deal with whatever poking, prodding, scanning, and radioactivity they can throw at me. Because I have to. Because Rosie needs a dad and Jenny needs a husband and besides, we haven't even finished having all of our kids. It's just amazing how much the stupid bullshit you're used to stressing out about fucks right off when you find out that your body is actively trying to kill you like a self-contained kamikaze pilot.

Jenny is making me healthful juices and we're going whole ham on organic foods and I'm getting rid of all the plastics, and I feel like a more positive person. More grateful to be alive. More grateful for Rosie's little toothy smiles and screeches. More at peace with my infinitesimally small place in the universe with the knowledge that terrible shit happens, but also that, to quote MPLS rapper POS, "worse things have happened to better people."I stop feeling sorry for myself when I see those bald six-year-olds on the commercials for children's hospitals and pediatric cancer research. At the present, I've had 29 years to be a fuck up, to fall in love, to sire an heir, and to devote way to many hours of my life to video games and way, way, way too many hours of my life to music. Over the next few months I plan on turning this tale into a graphic novel as a coping mechanism, and I can't wait to chronicle the radioactive iodine therapy because as far as I know, no one has ever written about that in a literary fashion and a title like "Radioactive Dad" is too good not to use. It's been embarassing to tell people about this, I don't know why. Calling my mom to tell her was the hardest thing I have ever had to do. It's so much easier to dump it here in a blog post. The whole, sordid tale of how sometimes, even though they say you should never, ever diagnose yourself via the interent, you can scare yourself enough to take action and get weird shit checked out. Check your lumps, people. It's worth a $30 copay to find out whether or not your body is plotting against you.

Naturally, I wouldn't be a proper music junkie if I hadn't already started cobbling together a mix for this terrible journey. But I've got one I've been playing on repeat like a call to arms: