There is No Such Thing as “Good” Cancer
A few months ago, I wrote about how I was set to undergo thyroid surgery due to some nodules on my thyroid that had started to grow and change after years of remaining stable.
On Feb. 12, I had my thyroid removed.
Twelve days later, I learned I had thyroid cancer.
Papillary microcarcinoma, to be exact. Three tiny spots that, all together, added up to just 4.5 mm.
I had gone to my post-op follow-up appointment nervous, but optimistic. Yes, I had nodules, but statistics show that less than 5 percent of those nodules turn out to be malignant.
As I told my mom, those statistics have to come from somewhere. Well, lucky me — I’m now a statistic.
The first thing my surgeon said when she walked into the room was, “I believe things happen for a reason, and the good news is, before I tell you anything, is that your thyroid is already out.”
Immediately, I knew. My stomach churning, I sat beside her desk as she gently uttered the words: “We found cancer.”
Somehow, I held it together in her office as she talked to me about pathology, prognosis and possible treatment. In shock, I left her office, trekked to my car, sat in the parking lot, and let the floodgates burst open. I cried because I was scared. I cried because I was angry. I thought about all of the effort I’ve put into eating right, exercising and generally living a healthful lifestyle – and yet I still got the big C.
Why me? I asked. But then, once reality set in, I reasoned, why not me? After all, I wasn’t born with a “get out of cancer free” card. No one is.
As a medically knowledgeable friend pointed out, “You can eat all of the kale sandwiches you want, but if you’re genetically predisposed to get cancer, you’re probably going to get cancer.” There is truth in that statement. A recent study came out reiterating that exact same sentiment. And while statistics show that thyroid cancer is on the rise, it simply may be because we’re getting better at diagnosing it.
Or maybe it’s because our environment is bombarding us with crap like parabens in lotions, triclosan in toothpaste and all kinds of fun chemicals that are leaking into our foods via plastics. Who the h-e-double-hockey-sticks knows.
Here’s the good news: Because my “foci,” as I’ve learned they are called, are so small, I do not, at this stage, need to be treated with radioactive iodine. The first specialist I saw actually left the decision up to me. He presented the option and then stared at my husband and me as if we needed to decide right then and there, on the spot. It almost felt as if we were debating whether we should buy the new car now or to sleep on it for another night.
Reasons to have it: it MIGHT prevent recurrence. There is no guarantee that it will.
Reasons not to have it: I’ll be radioactive. I’ll need to go off of my thyroid meds in advance of the treatment so that it works more effectively. Because I no longer have a thyroid, I need medication daily. Without the meds, I’ll be exhausted, cranky and generally miserable for about a month. I’ll also need to be quarantined for about a week since my body will be emitting radiation. I won’t get to see my baby girl, my husband, or even my cat. I’ll run the risk of permanent damage to my salivary glands, tear ducts and taste of sense and smell. It could also trigger early menopause or a secondary cancer somewhere down the road.
I pushed for reassurance, and he said that if I were his sister, he would recommend she not have it. However, because I am both neurotic and paranoid, I sought a second opinion, and am thankful that Doc No. 2’s recommendation was the same as the first.
Since my diagnosis, I’ve read from multiple sources that thyroid cancer is the “good cancer,” and that if you’re going to get a cancer, that thyroid cancer is the one you “want.”
Here’s the thing: No matter how small or how good the prognosis, no cancer is “good” cancer. Yes, I understand that my form of thyroid cancer can have a great outcome. The prognosis for other forms of thyroid cancer, such as medullary and anaplastic, is not nearly as good. I am so very, very grateful that my form IS the most common and the most curable.
And even though papillary microcarcinoma has a high cure rate when caught early, it also has a recurrence rate of 30 percent, with or without the radioactive iodine treatment. And it can metastasize into your lymph nodes, lungs, breasts, bones and so on – sometimes even 20 or 30 years after treatment. That means that for the rest of my life, I will need to be monitored with blood work, neck ultrasounds, and scans. That means that for the rest of my life, I will be left to wonder if “this is the day” that I will get bad news. I’m praying that I’m one of the so-called “lucky” ones, and that I’ll get to see my baby girl grow up and have babies of her own, if she so desires.
Moral of the story: Cancer sucks, period. No one wants it. No one asks for it and there certainly is no logical explanation for the randomness to which it is assigned. So the next time you hear someone put the words “good” and “cancer” in the same sentence, you have my permission to open up a good ol’-fashioned can of whoopass on ’em.