The “Good” Cancer – What a Pain in the Neck!
On December 27th, 2017, about two months after I turned the ripe old age of 24, I was diagnosed with Stage II Papillary Thyroid Carcinoma- more commonly known as thyroid cancer. About two weeks later, I learned that the cancer was not as “simple” and “contained” as my doctors at home thought, and had spread to lymph nodes throughout my neck and upper chest.
On February 8th, 2018, I underwent nearly 8 hours of surgery at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in my home town of NYC for a complete thyroidectomy and radical neck dissection. Along with my thyroid, I had 86 lymph nodes removed-with 26 lymph nodes testing positive for metastatic cancer.
When I found out I had cancer-I truly felt like my heart was ripped out of my chest (for lack of a better expression..)I always knew deep down that there was something wrong, something that doctors were missing- especially since thyroid disease is hereditary in my family-but I never thought I’d here the scariest 3 words I could ever imagined. What was even more bizarre to me was hearing that not only did I have cancer- but I had the “good cancer”, and I likely developed this cancer as young as 5 years old. Thyroid cancer is the type doctors say you want to be diagnosed with if you ever have to be diagnosed with one-because it grows so slowly, and doesn’t require the same amount of treatment. I tried my best to keep my emotions in check before my surgery, and I only became upset or cried when I was alone. I remember being in the CT scan machine and crying a little, and saying to myself, “ok, this is real- but you’re going to overcome this. It’s just a bump in the road.”
I had never had major surgery before. I was super nervous and anxious about the thought of being in surgery for 8 hours, let alone being operated on such an integral part of my body such as my neck. I was even more nervous for my family waiting for me to get through surgery. I remember waking up and being scared, and realizing that drains were placed and sewn into each side of my neck. The pain was unimaginable, and I remember tracing my finger around the steri strips on my neck to feel how large the incision around my neck really was. At this point I didn’t care about anything, I couldn’t even think to cry or complain, I was just grateful to be alive.
Fast forward to 4 months later. I have gone through more than I ever thought I’d have to go through in my life physically and emotionally, but I feel thankful, and most importantly-blessed. I count my lucky stars every day that this cancer was found at 24, and not when I’m 34, or 44, and married with a bunch of children. Even though thyroid cancer grows slowly, I can’t begin to imagine what would’ve happened if this was found another decade or two later. Throughout this whole process, I’ve had the best surgeon and doctors taking care of me at Sloan Kettering, and the best support system in my family and friends. On May 16th, 2018, I began prepping for my radioactive iodine (RAI) treatment (LOW IODINE DIETS ARE HORRIBLE- BY THE WAY), and as of May 24th, 2018, I am officially cancer free. My scans came back 100% clear post RAI, with no evidence of metastatic disease.
While now I’ve beat cancer, I’m going to face the new challenges of living without a thyroid. Before my diagnosis and surgery, I never truly knew what a thyroid was. All I knew was that it was the “butterfly gland” in my neck, and that my mother’s is under-active, and that you have to take a little pill called “Synthyroid” every day and it makes you very tired. I wasn’t aware of the connection it had to a person’s weight, hormone and energy levels, and how badly it can affect them- but this too I will overcome!
With all of my thyroid issues aside, I now have a really cool (and LARGE!) 12 inch scar around my neck. At first I was nervous about showing it off, but I’ve oddly grown fond of it. It reminds me of what I overcame, and that I’m stronger than I ever thought I could be. It reminds me that I have full control of my body again, and that I’m going to work every single day to be my best self, put my health first, and never take another single day for granted.
I made a promise to myself when I was diagnosed, and that was to never stop living my life, and to live it to the fullest. I can proudly say that this has experience has changed me, and every morning I wake up thankful for another day. Whenever I feel achy, or when my scar feels sore, I say to myself “Jenna, you are beyond blessed, and you are healthy again”, and I remind myself that I had cancer- cancer NEVER had me.