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Surviving the Adventures of Radiation Girl

Eleven years ago this month, I went to the doctor to have a look at the big lump in my throat I’d discovered in May. Not sure why I wanted to worry about it for six months before I had it checked out, but I guess it’s a pretty common occurrence. It turned out to be thyroid cancer. Fortunately for me, it is one of the easiest cancers to get rid of, with a nearly 100 percent success rate. Surgery to remove the thyroid, one round of radiation, and Bob’s your uncle. I am happy to count myself as a survivor.

Yesterday, my baby brother became a member of the zipper neck club, which is what I call people with the tell-tale scar from thyroid surgery. For the next week, we’ll wait for the test results to see if he has to go to the hospital to take the giant radioactive pill to blast the cancer cells. I sure hope not. It’s pretty weird to have someone come into your hospital room several times a day with a Geiger Counter to measure how radioactive you are, until you’re safe enough to be let out into the world. Disappointingly, you don’t glow in the dark or anything like that either.

Talking to my brother today about his surgery, reminded me of my own adventures as radiation girl. During my “adventure” I had a lot of people calling, emailing and texting me to find out how I was doing. Having cancer is exhausting, so to keep everyone up with what was going on, I wrote my first blog series. Today, I would post something like that on Caring Bridge, but then I emailed my relatives and posted it on MySpace. (Remember those days?) After I got off the phone with him, it was fun to go back and read what I had to say. When I’m stressed, I think I’m funny, and parts still make me chuckle. I’ve posted the blog series in its entirety here, in case you’re interested in reading it.

While my brother is recovering from the physical trauma of going under the knife, his spirits are good. That makes me happy. When he told me what was going on with his thyroid initially, I warned him that since I’d already been through it and come out okay, he probably wasn’t going to get as much sympathy as I did. He said he’s good with that, but I still feel bad for him that my family has become so jaded. Oddly as the baby of the family, he doesn’t need a lot of babying. We had a great time talking about lots of things this afternoon and laughed and laughed. Laughing might be the best medicine, but when you’ve just had surgery on your neck, it hurts. He’s always been generous and willing to take one for the home team, so it’s not really too much of a surprise he laughed like it didn’t hurt at all.

My brother isn’t the only person I love that’s concerned with cancer right now. There are so many people I know that are currently in a fight for their lives, I don’t dare stop to count them up. I have faith that each one of them will be survivors soon as well, and in eleven years will have stories about their own “adventure.” Until then, my dear friends, this is what helped keep me going.

The power of denial

One of the most interesting, funny things, I read on the American Cancer Association website was how those powers of denial we’d been working on our whole lives would finally come in handy. Who knew? They suggested just not thinking about it, which actually made me snort. While that’s easier said than done, it’s still good advice not to ruminate on what you can’t control. Now I think about it as “surrender,” and telling myself not to worry about things until I know I have something to worry about does help. After all, I’m the Queen of De Nile. (Couldn’t help it. Sorry.)

One step after another

“Chop wood, Carry water.” That’s what my BFF Teri says when life gets so overwhelming all that can be done, is the next thing to be done. You don’t think about it too much. You just have to accept it and do what you have to do to take care of yourself, rest, and focus on being well. The most important thing is to just keep going at a good steady pace, sort of like I imagine it must be like to run a marathon, although I’ll never know firsthand.

Have someone who can advocate for you

Going through medical procedures is taxing, to the body and the mind. After all, they are connected. Don’t expect to be at your sharpest mentally during this time. It’s going to be hard to talk to doctors, especially when things get emotional. It may feel like they’re speaking a foreign language. Having someone with you who is clear headed under the circumstances helps a lot. They’ll think of questions you don’t and can help make sure things are happening as they need to be.

People react differently

When someone is sick, there are people who want to move in and help with everything. Others can’t even bare the sight of someone who is ill, usually because they’ve lost someone that way before. But the most interesting thing I found from having cancer, was what I call “pity eyes.” That’s the look people give someone who they think are suffering. Sure, it’s a look of concern, but it’s really, really sad too. I had a hard time with pity eyes, because I knew I was going to be okay and didn’t feel I deserved pity. What was must surprising to me was how often I had to comfort people, who were upset I had cancer. That was just exhausting. But not as exhausting as the ones who thought we were having a competition at a pity party, for who had it the worst. I don’t like that game. I learned to be at peace with how others dealt with my experience, and let it go, realizing that’s all I can be responsible for.

Rally the support

A story that I didn’t put in the blog, but that touched me so deeply it still makes me tear up to think about is what my incredible friend Robin did during that time. She took me to the hospital with an ice storm moving in and sat with me while I waited to eat the radioactive pill, making me laugh so I wasn’t so scared. That was big. But even bigger for me was what she did the night I came home from surgery. She called and told me she had something for me. She’d be dropping by for a minute and to meet her at the door. When the bell rang, she was standing at the door and told me to turn around. When I did, she wrapped the biggest, fluffiest. warmest blanket around me and said, “Now go back to bed!” It was a cold night. I’ve never known what she did to keep that blanket so warm in her car, but it felt like she’d wrapped me in love. I still sleep with the blanket on cold winter nights.

From the experience, I discovered what a fantastic, strong, support team I had – and still have. People stepped up and did a lot to help me, sometimes without even asking me if I needed it. I felt so loved, and that made it better. At the time, I said on the top ten list of the worst things that have ever happened to me, that cancer didn’t even make the top five. I still feel like that, but now I’m not sure that’s a good thing. What is a good thing, is how I felt surrounded by the love and light of my family and friends by letting them into what I was going through, and not trying to tough it out alone.

But, the biggest thing I learned, was how to be a good friend. To realize I needed to be there to comfort, not be comforted and chase away fear, rather than dwell on it. To be present to just listen, a shoulder to cry on, without judgement, advice or platitudes. And to love unconditionally, even when someone gets grumpy or is ready to let go, before I am. That’s really all we can really do for each other. But it is so much.

Much love to you, Headmistress Jill

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