The Elephant in the Room is Cancer. Tea is the Relief Conversation Provides.

Prescription of Nature

by Jesse CollinsSurvivor, Thyroid CancerFebruary 22, 2022View more posts from Jesse Collins

I’m tired. Like to-the-bone weary, at a point where I switch into autopilot mode and float, not present in the moment, or really in the past or future, just tired. So, let’s talk about how I got here. It’s a mix of a glorious adventure in nature and sterile walls and fluorescent lights all in the matter of a week.

In 2013 I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. A thyroidectomy and left lateral neck dissection ensued paired with radiation. After that, two different journeys emerged, one monitoring and tackling the cancer, the other learning to live without a thyroid. For me this has not been easy. I have been tirelessly committed to my health and recovery with what rarely feels like a reprieve. A lot has been stolen and doctors have often told me to learn to “accept my new normal.” Which originally post-treatment involved me being so tired I would cry because I had to shower, get dressed, or get out of bed for work. While the thyroidless journey is something that impacts me daily, let’s wander down the cancer path.

Post my initial treatment there was a spot on my ultrasounds that multiple hospitals thought was remnant disease. Across nine years of scans, ultrasounds, biopsies and visits with endocrinologists, radiologists, and surgeons at University of Colorado Hospital, The Mayo Clinic and University of Pennsylvania Hospital, and debates about watching, ablating or operating, my medical team decided to act again. I recently had a second surgery in which the tumor I was sent for could not be located and ended without resolution. Which brings me to the start of my rollercoaster week.

Last Wednesday I was back at the hospital for post-surgery follow up. This time that entailed bloodwork, a lung CT, and a neck ultrasound. Day one was full of testing. Enter day two: meeting my doctor for results. Unfortunately, these results revealed that this medical team could still see the “spot” that I was sent to for surgery three months earlier. Talk about confusion! My appointment turned into a second marathon day at the hospital, and since I traveled in for care, the hospital got me in for a same-day biopsy. Hospital gowns and sticky socks; who can resist this type of “spa” day? While this was not the first time I have had a biopsy, it was a long one, and comments from the radiologist like “it won’t give up its secrets” and “we need to do a core biopsy on top of the FNA” started the bone-weary stress and fatigue. Bruised and unknowingly blue like a neon Smurf (from the antiseptic sterilizing solution), I stumbled out of the hospital red-eyed and dazed, trying to decide what I wanted to do next while I waited for results. I was hollow.

Cue nature. While what I really wanted to do was sleep, rest, and lay around, I knew that would not help my fear or stress. So, I drove to the mountains, and I skied (don’t worry, I asked for permission in between sobs on the operating table during the biopsy), and then I drove to some different mountains and skied harder. I had taken this time off after the hospital to attend a ski trip at Silverton Mountain with First Descents. If you don’t know, look it up: First Descents provides outdoor adventures for young adult cancer survivors and those with other health conditions (as well as caregivers and healthcare workers). Their main programs take you to surf, rock climb, ice climb, or whitewater kayak with the barrier to entry being you are aged 18-45 and, in the program I accessed, have membership in “the cancer club.” This exclusive club is one no one chooses to join.

I went from the operating table to 13,000 feet in a few days. I toe the line working to find grace and acceptance in the physical toll the thyroid cancer has taken and how it’s changed my body and my fitness, while still in tireless pursuit of more or return to my pre-health issue normal. On day six of this crazy week, I was outside boot packing around Silverton Mountain and skiing down steep terrain. Time in the mountains is soul-soothing therapy. It’s more than that though; it’s this knowledge that it’s a privilege to be out moving my body, pushing, in stunning backdrops, with fantastic people. Day seven, the second day at Silverton, I was out doing this magical thing (I even took one ski run out of a helicopter), back in terrain I haven’t been able to access in years due to my health, with National Geographic worthy views, connecting with beautiful people, and while it’s probably silly and stems from the lack of grace I offer myself, every labored turn on my skis I was also feeling the anxiety, frustration, and exhaustion in how my past three months (and really nine years) have impacted my body. The difference was that skiing in extreme terrain was my choosing. I had control, and there was nothing sterile about it like at the hospital. Whether I am in a scan or on an outdoor adventure, the only way is through it, and on day seven I cherished every silent f-bomb as I picked my way down the mountain turn by turn, hopefully skiing into a reprieve and some time for me to get back in shape and consistently back at what I love, even if it’s at a pace slower than I prefer!

When I am at the hospital in the waiting room, laying in some type of scan or test, or preparing to go into surgery, I close my eyes, take some deep breaths, and roll the healing images of my memories in nature. The smell of the trees, the sound of the ocean or river, the snow-capped peaks, wildflower filled meadows, shining stars, and the rays of the sun help transport me outside of those sterile walls. Nature is healing, and I need a healthy dose. Time outside keeps me regulated and has been an integral part of my cancer journey and adult life. Recess is in session and it’s an abundant playground.

Cancer steals from you. You lose control and it brings uncertainty and fear. It steals your time, your energy, and at times your peace. For me getting outside and adventuring allows me to retrieve those things and allows me to feel in control again. Even though there are many factors in nature I can’t control, like the weather, having the choice to access nature in its various capacities brings solace. I am constantly learning when I am in nature. I learn about my boundaries and how to push them. I learn about choice and control and about letting go. I learn about presence and how to be quiet. I learn to appreciate where I am while still moving towards where I want to be. I remember that all I can do is put one foot in front of the other and take one step at a time.

I’m happy to share my story and feel that it’s important to do so. Our society is uncomfortable with vulnerability and hard stuff. It’s easy to watch people smile but hard to watch them suffer. I’m not special though; just schooled by life and a health crisis, ever-present in its journey and education, trudging through each derailment as it comes. Sometimes that comes with utter fatigue that’s bone and brain deep and that’s infuriating to me, so why not practice tolerating that outside in nature at my choosing?

In the book titled The Comfort Crisis by Michael Easter, one of the ending lines is “Embrace discomfort to claim your happy, healthy, wild self.” I could not agree with this quote more wholeheartedly. For my fellow cancer thrivers and survivors, I know the disease brings a lot of unchosen discomfort. I hope you will choose some discomfort in nature. While it might make you tired as well (regardless of if it’s a walk to the corner of your block or the summit of a mountain), I promise it will soothe your soul and bring a tiredness that’s paired with a smile. And if you haven’t taken advantage of one of the few cancer perks, schedule your trip with First Descents and start #outlivingit!

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