And now, a bit of certainty

If you’re new to my cancer saga, here are parts one and two. Part three is coming along in a couple of sittings like these two. It’s the part where after I get diagnosed with papillary thyroid cancer, get it removed, and carry on with a bit of cloud hanging over my head, the cloud comes into focus. Now I know what’s next.

In case you hadn’t heard, cancer sucks. If it doesn’t kill your body, it tries to kill your spirit, your innocence, your optimism that you can fight and handle anything if you just eat healthy, work out, and be nice to people.

No, cancer doesn’t give a fucking shit about any of it. I could be a paleo-keto-vegan monk teaching orphans how to meditate. I’d still have this fucking cancer.

For the last two years, my biggest concern about my experience with cancer was not my missing thyroid or the pills I have to take, it was the uncertainty that it might still be there, lurking in the shadows of my neck. My blood tests didn’t quite pass muster. My ultrasounds and MRIs were not quite pristine. Something was afoot, and the evidence kept pointing back to this one rogue lymph node. An asymmetric blob that my docs at Kaiser found and my docs at John Muir Medical Center finally biopsied.

That’s where I left off last time. The follow-up involved an MRI to thoroughly case my neck, explicitly looking for more funny business. Neck MRI scans, because this area of the body is so complex, take a while. The technician told me that these are the longest scans they do. For forty-five minutes I’m squished in a tube, unable to move my upper body, with earplugs in my ears to muddle out the crazy thumping and bumping sounds that the MRI machine makes. It’s the worst. I’m grateful for the technology. I’m glad that I have insurance and can afford the copay. But boy do I wish I didn’t have to get MRIs of my neck.

I’ve been coupling these cancer hospital appointments with swim workouts. The motion of my body and the sound of the water feels cleansing, like a baptism. Hospitals, for all of their sterility, feel dirty to me. It’s like I need to wash the hospital air right off of me. Hospitals are for sick people. I’m not sick. At least I don’t feel like it, don’t think it, don’t act like it. And technically I’m not sick, even though at this very moment I have papillary thyroid cancer in a lymph node near my clavicle.

I’ve made the mistake of reading through the cancer subreddit. It is not a place for the faint of heart. These are real tragedies. My saga is a fairy tale compared to many people writing on that forum. I can’t complain, but I do because it’s only natural to gripe when something’s not fair, even when other innocent people have it worse. Far worse.

It was on Reddit that I learned a new word, “scanxiety.” It’s the fear of finding out your test results, the moment when your doctor’s number shows up on your phone and you realize that in mere seconds you will find out if the news you’ve been waiting for is good or bad. Did the numbers go up or down? Is it better or worse? Am I going to live a long life or die next month? After every scan there’s more scanxiety waiting for you.

That was how I felt after the MRI. After the biopsy I was fully prepared for the bad news. It was pretty obvious that Dr. B thought they’d find cancer. What she didn’t know is if, given that biopsy, there would be evidence of other cancers in my neck. It’s not unusual in papillary thyroid cancer for it to spread in the local lymph nodes. However, for this particular cancer, even with the spread it is technically a Stage 1 cancer. Meaning, even without this positive biopsy, I’d be a Stage 1 papillary thyroid cancer patient. Having the one positive lymph node doesn’t change the stage. To be Stage 2 they’d have to find it beyond the lymph nodes in my neck. It was possible the MRI could show this.

So yes indeed, I had scanxiety when the report came back, first via email, and then via a phone call from Dr. B’s office. I remember I got the email when I was putting my younger daughter to bed. When she’s drifting off, I rub her back with one hand and play chess or crossword puzzles on my phone with my other. The email alert popped up and I saw it was a test result from John Muir Hospital.

Suddenly I have two hands on the phone. My breathing is a bit shorter. My lips tense and contract. I try to calm myself as I open the message, click on the link, and log in. I wait for the screen to load, click on the test, and read the results. I scan for the punchline and find it.

No more bad news.

Yes! Finally, some certainty. My bad news stops with one lymph node, and that can be dealt with using a little bit of radioactive iodine. In my position this is as good as it gets.

Right now I’m waiting for my insurance and the pharmacy to do their dance and tell me how much more savings I have to put into my treatment. For the first time in my life, I will probably hit my out-of-pocket maximum.

I’m grateful for insurance, and also that I can afford it, but man oh man. If cancer wasn’t scary enough, the cancer treatment bills make it even scarier.

Life goes on though. You make money, you spend it. We’ll see what happens next.

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