It was 3:55 in the afternoon when I got the call. The area code was local to where I live and I rarely got robodials or spam calls with that prefix so I picked up, even though I had a work call in 5 minutes.
It was a receptionist from my endocrinologist’s office. My heart sank a bit. I had a biopsy of a lymph node the morning prior. I knew what this was about.
“Mr. Buckley, I’m calling to inform you that your biopsy did come back positive with papillary thyroid cancer. Dr. B would like to see you to discuss next steps in person.”
Despite her busy schedule, we managed to schedule an appointment for the next day. At 3:59 I ended that call and dialed into my next one, a weekly performance review for my day job as CEO of MightySignal. I powered through it, unwilling to reschedule so I could take a beat and reflect. After 45 minutes I was done, my last call of the day was over, and I could take a few minutes to mull the news over.
The thing about this cancer is not whether or not it will kill me — chances are it will not — it’s the time and money that it’s taking away. It doesn’t even bother me that much anymore, so the psychological effects for me at least seem very minimal. It’s an annoyance, a gnat flying around while I keep slapping air. I want it to go away but I’m learning to live with it instead.
The following day was busy. I jogged my girls to preschool. The air was crisp and cool, having rained the night before. These mornings are my favorite times to run. Everything smells so good. The crisp, moist air combined with hints of oak, bay, and grasses is one of the many things I love about where I live. I slept fine the night before and woke up itching to jog.
I knocked out the roundtrip with just enough time to shower and get in the car to make it into San Francisco for an 11am meeting. After lunch I had another meeting, and after that I went back to Walnut Creek to see my endocrinologist and discuss the biopsy results in person. On the way I prepared by thinking through the worst thing she could say and how I’d react to it. The worst case wasn’t terrible; given that this is papillary thyroid cancer it won’t get too extreme unless there’s some other indicator that something else is wrong. I figured that was very unlikely.
I arrived to my appointment on time and waited for the doctor to come in. If I knew there would be a 20-minute delay, I could actually do some work. Instead, I noodled on my phone. Reddit, Chess, Crossword Puzzle. All my frequently rotated apps. Finally she arrived and dove right in. It was clear she’d just spent that 20 minutes in her office reviewing my reports.
She apologized, saying she knows this is not the news I wanted, and she asked how I was doing. I smiled and said she did a good job preparing me for this. At our last appointment she showed me where some calcification could be seen on the ultrasound image of the cancerous lymph node. She said back then that it’s usually tied to cancer. It had also been two years since my previous doctor at Kaiser raised alarm about this lymph node. And in an odd alignment of stars, it was the Kaiser radiologist next door, my literal next door neighbor, who first spotted it.
Her suggestion was to get an MRI and make sure there’s nothing else suspicious in my neck. Assuming it’s just this one lymph node, I can then choose to take radioactive iodine, a very targeted form of chemotherapy, to attempt to blast the cancer out of my lymph node. That was the plan we set in motion.
I hopped back into my car and drove to Diablo Valley College where I’m on the advisory board to the business administration department. I mostly forgot about the biopsy, the call telling me there’s still cancer in my neck, and the treatments I still have to do. I drove back home and saw my kids outside playing with our neighbors. I told the dad, the radiologist from Kaiser, my new news. He was disappointed but also not surprised.
I’m paying attention to this cancer when I have to, but I’m not stressing about it. I’m frustrated that I have to max out my deductibles now and spend many hours each year and hospitals and blood labs, but I’ll handle those experiences when they happen.
I don’t need to worry about how much time the MRI will take now, or what will be left on the bill after insurance pays its share.
Those are worries for another day.