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Hidden But Not Forgotten: A Story About Refractory Cancer

by Carly FlumerSurvivor, Thyroid CancerJune 4, 2024View more posts from Carly Flumer

Dear Cancer,

I remember being diagnosed with you back when I was 27. How the simple words, “You have cancer,” changed my life in an instant. I was alone with a pathologist and a radiologist, not exactly hearing the words that were being spoken to me. Words like “papillary, thyroid, surgery,” were formed together in sentences I didn’t quite understand. I didn’t have my parents or a caregiver with me. At that moment, I was isolated. A bleak room, an ultrasound machine running in the background, depicting various dark images, with you, a tumor, shining brightly for all to see.

During that phase of my life, I was conveniently working in primary care at a hospital that had some of the most highly rated providers in the region. I knew I was already in the right place to ask where to get treatment, to get you out of my body. “It’s the cancer to have if you were ever to receive a diagnosis,” one doctor said to me, “There’s a very good outlook.” So I took that, and the notion that I wasn’t having any symptoms, to heart. I thought you and I wouldn’t become as close as we are now, Cancer, and I took pride in how well I was handling you on my own. My parents, along with a few friends, knew about you, but I wasn’t exactly ready to share with the world. “This will be over before I know it,” I gravely assumed.

I was set to see my surgeon in five months’ time, the earliest I could see this specific provider who had done hundreds of thyroidectomies. I waited until that day where I was told that you, my tumor, was small, and I had one of two choices. The doctor could remove the specific half of the thyroid where you were located, with the caveat being you could return to the other half of the small gland nestled delicately within my throat at any point in time. My other option was to remove the whole thyroid and take a tiny pill to live out the rest of my days, with side effects I wasn’t exactly sure about. I naturally opted for the former, the side with you and only you, hoping that we would not face each other again after my procedure was done.

My surgery day came and went; I finally had you out of me…or so I thought. Two days later, my surgeon called me on my cell phone. I was recovering in bed, ready and waiting to know you were gone for good. However, I received the opposite news. Not only had you invaded my thyroid, a precious, little gem whose functions I had no clue of, but you invaded my lymph nodes, too—over 80% of the ones extracted to be exact. The surgeon told me I would need to come back for surgery number two. “Who knows how many more lymph nodes the cancer invaded? I’m sorry, but your cancer has spread, and our next plan of action is to get you back on the operating table, take out the rest of your thyroid, and then undergo radiation,” he explained. In that moment, my body shaking, tears streaming down my face, I thought you were gone and then you weren’t.

After a successful surgery and a round of full-body radiation, I was declared free from you by imaging standards. Nothing lit up like it had in the past, except for my bloodwork. Unfortunately, my tumor marker would remain elevated, but stable, a glimmering beacon of hope that was being dulled silently, foreshadowing what was to come.

I remember being diagnosed with you back when I was 31. It was now clear why there had been a tumor marker lingering for the past four years. At my annual scan, you showed up yet again: a white, uneven blob that was discovered in my neck near my collarbone, an area that was hovered over by the radiologist, indicating that something was wrong. “It’s papillary,” the pathologist came back saying after he analyzed you under the microscope. I knew what this meant as he left the room and I doubled over, not hiding my tears. After two surgeries, a round of radiation, and four years of thinking I was free from you, I was definitely not. You had lingered around, small enough to not show up on my previous annual scans, but now you decided to make your appearance. I reached back out to my surgeon, who suggested a couple of different options for treatment, but, ultimately, I wanted you out, so I opted for surgery number three.

In December 2021, I was declared free from you yet again, but this time, I knew it was for good. My subsequent scans and blood work were clear, and I knew I was on the right path. That’s not to say that you won’t ever come back again, but I can tell you I’ll be ready when you do.

Dear Cancer, you may have taken away an important, but now defunct, gland in my body and given me a plethora of side effects to go along with it, but you gave me much more than you probably know. I earned a Master’s degree in health communication while you were coursing through my body, and I hope to use the skills that I’ve learned to help others like me with cancer, especially the AYA community. You’ve taught me how to fire a doctor, be so specific about how to take medication, and be vulnerable, asking questions of my care team I would normally be too afraid to ask. And finally, you’ve welcomed me with open arms to the best club no one ever cares to join and have given me some of my best friends.

Oh Cancer, you see, there is no battle to be won, just a life to be relished and revered with you in it. And to make peace with that is something I will never take for granted.

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