27.) I Think I’m a Survivor

I guess, as I’ve heard many an old cowboy say, “I’m in pretty good shape for the shape I’m in.” I am more than a little relieved to be able to say that, after a five-month ordeal involving two surgeries and a RAI (internal radioactive iodine therapy), requiring two hospital stays—eight days of hospitalization—three weeks of hypothyroidism, and a seemingly endless plethora of blood tests and lab work, my endocrinologist has finally given me the “all clear” with regard to this cancer that I have been battling.

What this means is that, despite some apparent uptake of radioactive iodine in my liver, after looking at both the body scans and the ultrasounds, my medical team sees no reason, at this point, to change the original diagnosis or accompanying prognosis.  The cancer is still listed as a T2N0M0—stage two, well-differentiated papillary carcinoma with no apparent spread to the lymph nodes and no distant metastasis to other parts of the body.

In other words, my medical team thinks that they were able to remove both tumors—a 3.5 cm. in the left hemisphere of the thyroid, and a .5 cm. in the right hemisphere—while they were still “contained” and before there was any spread beyond the thyroid gland.  However, the endocrinologist was also careful not to use the word “cured” and even went to some length to emphasize to me that, while life goes on as near to normal as possible, it is quite impossible to promise anybody that they are cured of cancer.

According to Weill Cornell Medical College at New-York Presbyterian Hospital, Department of Surgery:

Papillary thyroid cancer will recur or persist in about 25% of patients [some sources say 30%], and 80% of these recurrences will be in the neck. Recurrence occurs most commonly in the first 2 years after thyrodectomy. In papillary thyroid cancer, however, recurrence can occur up to 45 years after surgery… (Weill, 2013).

For this reason, I must return to my endocrinologist every year for a physical exam, blood-work, ultrasound, and possibly a WBS (whole body scan) using a tracer dose of radioactive iodine.

I guess I was feeling a little giddy with all this good news, so on my way home from the consultation, the Lord used a “chance” meeting—if there really is any such thing—with another thyroid cancer patient to sober me up a little and put this whole situation in context.  By His grace, I was privileged to meet, and share some time with, a woman named Kathleen, from the island of Maui.  We shared a cab from the downtown Honolulu clinic out to the airport, and then munched a few snacks and talked together while we waited for our respective flights.

Seven years ago, Kathleen was given the very same diagnosis as I—stage two papillary thyroid cancer.  She underwent the same treatment, as well—total thyroidectomy followed by RAI—and was given the “all clear.”  However, later tests and scans, at the three year mark, indicated possible local spread of the cancer to the lymph nodes; so Kathleen then underwent a radical neck dissection involving the removal of several lymph nodes, followed by another RAI. Now, at the seven year mark, tests reveal that the cancer has metastasized to her lungs and she is facing even more surgery to remove it, and the possibility of yet another RAI.

This story is often repeated among my friends on the ThyCa/Inspire online support community.  In fact, even as I write this, one of my close friends—Lolly, who lives on Maui—is on the U.S. Mainland preparing for a second surgery, scheduled for tomorrow. Last year, she went through the same procedures I’ve been through. Earlier this year, she endured a second RAI. Now, she must undergo radical neck dissection to remove recently discovered metastatic lymph nodes.

So, I’m glad that I met up with Kathleen; even if doing so cast a rather serious tone over what, otherwise, might have been an artificially jubilant day.  I think I needed to hear her story, firsthand, to help drive home to me the endocrinologist’s cautionary warnings.

Still, I know I have a lot to be thankful for; a lot to smile about. The surgeries are healing up okay, although my neck is still a little stiff and painful.  The effects of the radiation are still evident: swollen glands, numb and tasteless tongue—my coffee still tastes like burnt rubber—sores in my mouth and nose—several bloody noses each day—and my hair, while not falling out altogether, has become coarse, thin, and clumpy looking.

During my last hospital stay at Moanalua Medical Center on Oahu, I was struck by a number of patients on my floor who were also battling cancer and who had lost all of their hair. There was this one woman, in particular, who kept visiting all the other patients—a little social butterfly constantly moving from room to room.  She was just a beautiful, bright, rainbow of light to everyone else on the floor. But she, too, had lost all of her hair and wore a bright red bandana. I remember her warm smile and pleasant disposition; and how, though fighting cancer herself, she brought joy to everyone she touched.

While in radioactive isolation, I gave a lot of thought to this gal—I didn’t even get her name—and to some of the beautiful children I had seen, and my thoughts prompted me to perform a little ritual of sorts.  After spending some time in prayer and meditation, I shaved my head and determined not to ever grow my hair back out again. I’m making this commitment for several reasons: first, to honor all my compatriots who, like me, have walked this dark and scary road of having to personally battle with cancer—especially the children; second, to commemorate and remind myself, from this point on and throughout my life, of my own walk of faith through the stormy clouds of cancer—the emotions, the nuances, the struggles, and the victories; and third, because what little hair I have remaining to me seems to have become rather thin, brittle, and patchy—so I would rather look like an old NBA player than an old alien. Actually, I probably now look like an old, alien, NBA player. Anyway, as fate would have it, the bald look has become the new en vogue—putting me, once again, on the very cutting edge of contemporary fashion – ha!  What can I say?

I’m still trying to get back to some degree of hormonal equilibrium as my endocrinologist continues to try to regulate the hormone replacement therapy. I fatigue way too easily, my eyes are puffy and watery, and my body feels stiff, swollen, and bloated.  And, one of the worst symptoms, I’m way too emotional about everything—I rant, rave, and fuss about stupid little things that aren’t all that important; like having to replace a broken down washing machine or having to spend money on new tires.

When my dad, who just turned 80, actually called me—he’s never called me, I always call him—just to check on me, tell me that he’s praying for me—wait, what? dad is “praying” for me???—and to tell me that he loves me, I cried.  Well, after all, it was the first time in my whole life that I can ever remember my dad telling me that he loved me.  Still, my emotions are bordering on the ridiculous.  I can’t even seem to share a passage of scripture during our Sunday morning praise, or pray over someone in need, without having to seriously choke back the tears.  Even if someone I love simply makes a contribution to my “Relay For Life” cancer fundraising team, you guessed it, I cry—sheeesh!

On the other hand, I also laugh and laugh at things that really aren’t all that funny, like when my son-in-law had to be “rescued” by bay watch last week while out trying to learn how to surf.  He got caught in a current and was being whisked off to Tahiti and had to be retrieved by a life guard.  Why do I find that so hilarious?

One of the most physically and emotionally difficult aspects of this whole thing has been the terrible setback I’ve encountered with regard to my running, health, and overall weight-loss regimen.  Maintaining a rigorous training program is never easy to begin with and there are always new obstacles that rise up to “blindside” you—pulled muscles, sore joints, aches and pains of every kind, not to mention the human factors and various events and activities that are always competing with training time.  But, “cancer”???  That’s a pretty big “bump in the road!”

After embarking upon my new training program last year, I had lost more than 60 pounds—all the way down to 197 lbs.—and had gradually improved my running times to 45 minutes flat—nine minutes per mile—over a five consecutive mile run; nothing particularly impressive, but not too bad for an “ole dawg” like me.  But then, yesterday, when I finally dared to climb back up on the scales, I nearly collapsed in a heap when I saw that I had gained all the way back up to 240 lbs.—just a month or so ago I was at 220 lbs. OMGoodness… I’ve gained back over 20, and now over 40, pounds—seriously???”  That’s a lot of ground to have to make up; especially without a thyroid to properly and effectively govern my metabolism. My secret fear is that I won’t be able to get control of my metabolism and I’m just going to keep gaining and gaining until I become one great, big, gigantic couch blob.

Trembling at such a thought, I found myself almost braking into tears again—I’m just not myself these days. But I managed to maintain some measure of manliness and, instead, I just got mad and went for a run—which only turned out to be an insult added to injury.  While I had intended to “run” 3.5 miles minimum in about 35 minutes—surely I could manage a short, little ten minute per mile jaunt—I was only able to “jog” a total of 2.8 miles in about 60 minutes; actually I only “jogged” three-tenths of a mile, the rest was more akin to a “waddle.” Even more embarrassing was when a mom, pushing her toddler in a stroller, came racing by me like I was standing still.

Sooooooooo, life goes on—with all its thrills and spills!  And the reality is that, for all of us, there will be life-altering changes along the way.  We should never forget the Biblical admonition expressed by the “son of David,” King Solomon, who says:

I again saw under the sun that the race is not to the swift and the battle is not to the warriors, and neither is bread to the wise nor wealth to the discerning nor favor to men of ability; for time and chance overtake them all.  Moreover, man does not know his time: like fish caught in a treacherous net and birds trapped in a snare, so the sons of men are ensnared at an evil time when it suddenly falls on them. (Ecclesiastes 9:11-12, NASB)

This passage of scripture reminds me that I must eventually learn to live with a certain measure of vulnerability.  I am not as invincible as I, perhaps, once thought I was.  Having no thyroid, my survival now depends on a tiny little purple pill that I must take on an empty stomach, one hour before breakfast, at the same time every day.  And, without our complicated, modern medical processing and distribution systems making that medication accessible to me on a regular and continuing basis, I will slowly die the horrible death of hypothyroidism—creepy thought!  Of course, if push ever comes to shove, I suppose I can always take the “vampiric” route and derive my thyroid hormone replacement “naturally” by becoming one Hawaiian wild pig hunter.  I’ll leave the rest of that morbid thought to your imagination!  >>>a hem<<<

To balance Solomon’s practical admonition, I want to share with you another beautiful passage of scripture that has been repeatedly shared with me by a number of friends and loved ones in recent weeks.  It’s a message of hope that can be found in Psalm 91, wherein Moses, the alleged author of this Psalm, says:

He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress, My God, in whom I trust!” For it is He who delivers you from the snare of the trapper and from the deadly pestilence. He will cover you with His pinions, and under His wings you may seek refuge; His faithfulness is a shield and bulwark.  (Psalm 91:1-4, NASB)

This is a time in my life for deep gratitude.  A time for thankfulness.  A time for seriously contemplating and appreciating the power of prayer and the importance of relationship with God, and with people who love me.  It is also a time for celebrating at least a partial victory—praise God, I’m presently in the clear; the wolf prowling at the door has backed off, at least temporarily.

However, I’m still more than a little “edgy.”  I would never be so cocky as to say, or even think, that I have, to any great degree, kicked cancer’s ass. Rather, I feel as though I have, for the moment and by the Lord’s grace, dodged a bullet.  I’ve been granted a reprieve.  But there is an ever-present foreboding, residing somewhere in the dark recesses of my mind, that keeps reminding me that this cancer could, one day, very well rise up again to thoroughly kick my lil butt.

As a result, I have a new-found respect for every person who wears the designation, “Cancer Survivor,” and for the ever continuing psychological and physiological issues with which they must contend.  While life goes on, it will never be quite the same for any who have borne the diagnoses of cancer.

I guess I am one such “survivor” now, too.  But I find in that designation nothing much to gloat about.  It is not a source of pride for me.  If anything, it only produces a deep, abiding humility within me; along with a greater reverence for life, for health, for meaningful relationships, and for every good day I am granted on this earth.

Many cancer survivors have had it a lot worse than I.  I have a new-found respect and admiration, and a great deal more empathy, for each of them—and especially every person I know, some very dear to me, who, though they fought courageously, eventually lost their earthly struggle against cancer. Being a “survivor” makes me want to treasure their memory and celebrate their courage all the more.

And, finally, being a “cancer survivor” makes me want to express my deep appreciation to all of you who are our caregivers, our supporters, our lovers, our prayer partners, our advocates—those of you who not only “put up” with us, but who enable us to confront this enemy and go the distance, regardless of the outcome, with the emotional and physical sustenance you are willing to provide.  Some of you caregivers are survivors yourselves.  Some of you have suffered great loss at the death of loved ones.  All of you are our rainbows!

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