Molly's been complaining that this summer all her friends will be 21 and she will only be 20, which means that she will miss out on a summer of patronizing some of the Jersey Shore's finest drinking establishments. In response to this complaint, I reminded her that the summer my friends were 21 and I was 20 I had thyroid cancer. I didn't mean to make her feel bad, and this memory didn't even make me feel bad or sad or traumatized--that was just how I remembered that summer, in a fog of medical imaging, surgery, recovery, radiation, and a triumphant return to Rutgers where a took a summer course on Tsarist Russia--and unlike my repeated failure in the medical tests to which I had been subjected over the past several months, I aced the final exam.
I'm not sure where the most effective place to begin my narrative is, but it seems logical to start in the spring of my junior year of college. I was taking 18 credits and in between massive amounts of reading and writing, I was playing lots of Dr. Mario on an old Nintendo one of my roommates had unearthed. As a result of playing Dr. Mario, taking seminars Kafka and on bodies in pain, and research for my senior thesis on the X-Men, I spent a lot of time thinking about illness and mutation--so when I started getting migraines I was convinced that I had a brain tumor and went home to see my physician.
My mother decided that since migraines were a grown-up malady that I should (for the first time) go to the grown-up doctor. I was dully impressed with him because he had an extensive knowledge of the history of comics in the 1960s, so we chatted about the X-Men and then he informed that I had a lump on my thyroid, which was totally normal, but which I should have checked out. He wrote me a prescription to get a thyroid scan, which I did the next time I went home for the weekend.
The thyroid scan revealed a cold nodule on my thyroid, and while I'm not sure what exactly that means I know it was bad and that it required me to get an ultrasound of my thyroid after which the radiologist curtly informed me that I probably had thyroid cancer and needed to get a biopsy. (It's my understanding that radiologists are notoriously cold which is why they work with images rather than patients). A couple weeks later I went to see an Ear-Nose-and Throat doctor who took a biopsy but missed my thyroid entirely and didn't get any readable tissue, so I had to get a second biopsy--this time at the hospital--a guided biopsy, guided by an ultrasound needle to ensure that they took the right tissue. This biopsy revealed that I had a tumor, but the lab technicians were unable to discern whether it was benign or malignant. They just knew that it had to be removed.
As I was going through all this testing, I don't remember being particularly scared. One reason for this was that my mom, for the first time I can remember, was visibly frightened, so I felt the need to mask any anxiety I had to set a good example for her. Additionally, I sort of enjoyed becoming an object of study. Maybe I liked the attention, as pathological as that sounds. But mostly, I was fascinated by the way in which the tests and medical imaging made the mysterious inner workings of my body visible to me. For as long as I can remember, I've been fascinated by bodies. When I was 11, I prided myself on the fact that I had memorized the scientific names of all the bones in the human body and nearly all of the internal organs--nearly all of which I still remember to this day. So, here I was, finally seeing my own insides rather than those of anonymous people in medical and science texts. Somehow though, seeing my insides outside I always felt like it was someone else's body I was looking at and that it was someone else who was sick.
Insofar as the actual thyroidectomy is concerned, I don't remember much. As my parents would say (and do say in their narratives) I was in a "drug-induced stupor" for most of the experience. I remember that everyone came to visit me--my brothers, uncle, grandparents, and even the rabbi. I remember that the ENT shoved a tube up my nose to see if my vocal chords were damaged, and that this was the single most painful point in my entire surgery and recovery. I remember that my mom stayed with me in the hospital overnight and that we watched The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly and Batman Returns. I also remember eating Beef Wellington and thinking it was the most delicious thing I'd ever eaten--even though I hadn't eaten red meat for eight years before that moment (with the exception of the occasional bite of brisket at holidays that I made my family vow never to tell anyone about).
Even after my thyroid was removed, the lab technicians could not discern whether my tumor was benign or malignant, so it had to be shipped to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester for further study--I would go on to joke that my move to Minnesota would be a reunion with my thyroid. The technicians at the Mayo Clinic found that it was in fact malignant, so I had to undergo radiation. They say that the radiation treatment for thyroid cancer is the easiest--all I had to do was swallow two radioactive iodine pills to kill any remaining thyroid cells in my body and prevent metastatis. The pills were in a lead capsule that looked like something from sci fi movie that would contain frozen alien body parts or something. My mom and the doctor laughed as I swallowed them like they were Tylenol rather than radioactive caplets that cost thousands of dollars (thank goodness for medical insurance).
For two days after the radiation, I had to flush the toilet three times each time I used it and no one was allowed to come within more than a foot of me (no hugs, at a time I really needed them). I also barfed up a combination of chocolate chip cookies, coke, and multi-grain bread. For a long time I couldn't eat any of them. My then boyfriend bought me a pair of Incredible Hulk boxing gloves, because I, like Bruce Banner, was exposed to radiation--though his made him a superhero and mine made me an invalid. We were both, however, untouchable.
My life hasn't changed significantly since all this went down. I have to take pills every morning and will for the rest of my life. I have a scar that people ask me about all the time. I hate when they say: "What happened to your neck!" but I like when they say, "Did you have a thyroidectomy? Me too--look at my scar!" or when they tell me I look tough. And it still seems like it was someone else's body.