Finding Beauty in Struggle
It wasn’t long after my spring semester of my junior year of college that I noticed something was off about me. The energetic, go-getter girl was now tired, moody and unmotivated. It completely came out of nowhere. I talked to my parents about how I was feeling and they suggested going to the doctor for a physical, which was already on my summer to-do list, as I was a college athlete on the Field Hockey team.
Long behold, I was feeling crappy for a reason. My thyroid levels were through the roof and after some more testing I was diagnosed with hyperthyroidism and Graves’ disease. All of this together led to a continued summer of misery for me, which wasn’t ideal going into my final year of college. My muscles were weak, I was constantly tired, constantly hot and could not keep weight on for the life of me. I tried so hard to train for my last season of athletics, but it was such a task just to get up and go to the gym. My body was against me and there was nothing I could do about it. I also developed eye problems as a result of Graves’ disease, which bulged my eyes out over time.
Once I found my endocrinologist, they took a deeper look into what was going on with my thyroid. Ultra sounds found that not only was my thyroid enlarged, I had a bunch of suspicious lymph nodes on the left side of my neck. The next steps would be excruciating pain in the form of a fine needle biopsy. The goal was for this needle to enter my neck and get a sample of the lymph nodes that were causing red flags. I am terrible with needles, so each time I was on the verge of passing out.
My biopsy at the time, came back inconclusive and all I was left with before returning to college was that I could potentially have cancer. Hearing those words were like getting smacked with a brick wall and even more nerve-wracking because there was no complete diagnosis yet. I did my best though to stay strong, brush it off and know that everything would be okay. A lot of me wanted to stay strong for my family, especially my mom who was in the room with me.
I went back to school and really struggled through my Field Hockey preseason. I was constantly scolded by my coach and accused of being out of shape, but in reality it was my thyroid breaking down my body. Instead of being a front runner in fitness testing, I was usually dead last. Instead of being a leader on the field, I found myself stopping through drills and having to take a breather. I was in denial and with not having an official cancer diagnosis, I just did not want to mention any of my health issues to my coaches or teammates.
I guess at the time it was a pride thing and also not really being educated enough on how much an overactive/under active thyroid affects the body as a whole. I also started noticing my bulging eyes a lot more, and I became extremely self conscious about how I looked. I drove back and forth between Pennsylvania and New Jersey to see doctors on a monthly basis. Each time I would get different tests done to figure out what was going on. Still each time there were no answers.
I knew surgery to remove my thyroid was on the horizon at some point, but I still had cancer sitting in the back of my mind.
Once I graduated college, testing racked up, meeting with surgeons to find the best started happening and it was all becoming a harsh reality. Once my thyroid levels were normalized, which took over a year, I was given the thumbs up to have a total thyroidectomy. And with this surgery, they would remove the lymph nodes in my neck and send them to pathology to see if they were indeed cancerous.
I had my thyroid removed August 28, 2014 and the next morning my surgeon’s nurse came in and told me that I had cancer. They were certain though that they had gotten all of it out of my neck, which was a bright light in a very long, painful and exhausting process. A couple months later I then underwent radioactive iodine treatment, which warranted me to be exiled in my room for 72 hours. It was a very humbling and eye-opening experience for me going through that. And on top of it, I had to eat a low-iodine diet for three weeks, which was miserable in itself.
After the radiation treatment, I then had to complete a full body scan to see if any cancer spread to other parts of my body. The scan is long and uncomfortable as you have to stay perfectly still. My scan results came back clear and I celebrated by eating a large cheese pizza. And one year later, I had to do one more radiation treatment and those results came back clear, as well!
I’m 26 years old now and 4 years cancer free. My 5 year anniversary is coming up in August and I’ve been waiting to hit that milestone because after 5 years the chances of the cancer coming back are virtually none. That’s a big accomplishment for me to reach.
I don’t normally open up about how hard life after cancer has been because for as long as I can remember, I’ve always felt the need to be strong. This has been no exception, even for as big of a monster as cancer is. But here’s a little insight: People call it the “good cancer,” but nothing about having thyroid cancer has been “good.”
My body has changed so much since then. My daily life consists of taking a little pill every morning called Synthroid to keep the cancer away and keep me going. Finding the right dosage took years, which early on resulted in severe acne. A lot of the time years later, I’m tired, unmotivated and don’t want to get out of bed. I have mood swings out of nowhere, which sucks because it hurts the people I love who are around me. I also forget things a lot and have brain fog. Blood work is the norm, as I have to go every three months to get checked. And of course, I can’t forget yearly ultra sounds, just to make sure there are no suspicious lymph nodes coming back.
In the adult life when it’s constantly go-go-go to make a living and have a balanced lifestyle, feeling this way has been challenging for me. I feel like I lost a piece of me after cancer. I feel like I don’t remember what it’s like to really “feel good” or be confident in the way I look. That’s been hard for me, especially after 3 plastic surgery procedures on my eyes to relieve the bulging aftermath of Graves’ disease. I’ve had to fall in love with the new me and remember my scars mean something. It’s not always easy, but I do my best every day to remember what I’ve endured and overcome.
While I may have lost a piece of me, I’ve gained so much more. I’m now someone who truly lives life to the fullest, despite the unfavorable circumstances that have come my way. I love hard and cherish the people around me because I know how unexpected life can be. I’ve learned that yeah, I’m strong and if I can conquer cancer than I can overcome anything. I have the greatest support system in the world, between family, friends and my girlfriend who believe in me and love me for who I am. It means the world and gets me through my darkest days. I can never thank them enough for what they bring to my life and all they’ve done. I feel like it’s easy to try and take things on by yourself, but I have learned that it’s okay to lean on the one’s who love you most to lift you up.
I’m still on quite the life journey, but I’m always hoping to inspire others along the way. I honestly just love bringing a smile to people’s faces and extracting the best out of them. I know that we all may not go through the same thing, but there is connection through struggle. No matter what struggle you may be facing or have faced, there is beauty in it. There is beauty in the process of overcoming. There is beauty in the days of not wanting to get out of bed. There is beauty in the tears, the screaming, the fears and everything in-between. Struggle is beautiful, fighting is beautiful and no matter who you are and what you go through/went through, YOU are beautiful too.