A week ago last Thursday, I stepped rather gingerly into Mississauga’s Trillium hospital, not entirely free from the denial of what was going to go on once I got there. I took off my own clothes and put on their little gown-smock and little robe; I even put their puffy “slippers” on. I gave the last of my belongings to my mother, with only the elastics tying up my braids to my name. And I waited until they came to get me. A person undergoing this procedure does not get wheeled into the operating room. One simply walks in, surely a very empowering process.
As my surgeon says, “you were fine until we closed the door.”
I sat down on the thin little bed, with a pillow under my back to expose my throat, and hyperventilated. The last thing I remember was the IV going into my hand, the smell of rubber from the mask over my face, and wonderful, sympathetic surgical team telling me they would take good care of me.
The next thing I knew, I was lying in a darkened recovery room (at least, it seemed darkened at the time), feeling like I was sitting by the pool in the sun at a 5 star resort with a margarita in my hand. I had no idea how much time had passed. I went in at 2pm, and by the time I was fully conscious again it was 8pm. Surgery lasted 2.5 hours, and I was in recovery for 4. They kept asking me if I wanted painkillers, and I couldn’t imagine why I would. I knew what they’d done, my throat felt a little rough, but when asked, I told them my pain was a .2 on a scale of 1 to 10. I felt fine. I was told talking would be a strain (and, if mistakes had been made, impossible), but I could talk pretty well. I didn’t want to be shouting or singing, but the voice made it through okay.
I asked the recovery room nurse if we had been formally introduced, and she said no, we had not, and her name is Mary. I introduced myself and thanked her. She was very kind to me. There was someone else in the recovery room crying and asking for help. Mary told me that some surgeries take a bigger toll than others. I spent most of my time in recovery feeling extraordinarily grateful and blessed.
They transferred me to my room that evening, and I met the night nurse, who helped me move from the very comfortable 5-star bed I was in to the even MORE comfortable bed I would spend the night in. She told me I wouldn’t sleep too well that night, because she needed to check my vitals every couple of hours. I didn’t sleep more than 30 or 40 minutes at a time anyway; I was starting to feel anxious about the thing they had done to me. There was a thick dressing over my throat. It didn’t hurt, but I kept waiting for it to. I kept my head as still as possible to avoid hurting myself.
Checking my vitals included: tapping my cheekbones and cheeks, checking my blood pressure, starting at my open palm, and asking if my lips or fingertips felt tingly. Along they way I learned that these are ways to determine whether my calcium levels have dropped radically. The regulation of calcium in your body is control by glands that sit behind a healthy thyroid (called parathyroid glands), and in fear that they had been damaged somehow in surgery, they were monitoring me carefully. At each of these visits my neck was measured; I had a measuring tape draped around my shoulders for just this purpose. The numbers seemed to be going progressively down. Again there were frequent questions about whether I wanted any pain killers. The night nurse, Carolyn, was also extraordinarily kind to me, and finally, at about 2am, brought me codeine and told me, “it’s okay, it’s FREE!”
By about 11am the next morning I was getting pretty bored. They took the top dressing off the incision because it was useless and totally dry. Underneath was a large, oval sticker covering seri-strips (surgical adhesives) underneath. My drain was emptied and apparently there was very little fluid removed by it. The IV was stuck into my wrist, icily reminding me of its presence each time I moved my (left) hand. (Did I mention that I’m left-handed?) I was starving but I hadn’t been cleared for food yet.
At 2:30 the surgeon dropped by and said, “you’re fine, go home.” Though he told me in pre-op that he would know instantly if my thyroid was cancerous or not as soon as he took it out, he was much more circumspect. He wouldn’t say what he thought, except that my lymph nodes were fine. “Call my office on Monday,” he said, “and make an appointment for Friday.”
The nurses, fantastic people that they are, supported me in my terror of having another panic attack by recruiting a team of three to tell me stories and jokes while a fourth took off the oval sticker on my incision, removed the drain tubes, and finally rid me of the much-hated IV. They all deserve medals of valour.
I went home and slept, and discovered that, while I was in no pain from the incision, I had strained every muscle in the back of my neck/upper back in fear of causing myself pain. For the first time, I gave myself permission to roll over on to my side.
On Friday I went to see the surgeon again. He took the seri-strips off and told me to wash the incision twice a day, and put cream on it. “Any kind of cream. Polysporin, vitamin E, whatever you want.” The idea of looking at the incision gave me the creeps, let alone touching it.
The word: they found a 1.5cm malignant tumour, deep inside a larger calcified nodule on my thryoid gland. No indication that it had spread itself around, and as he had indicated, my lymph nodes (removed at the same time) had all come back negative.
“You’re probably cured,” he said, apologetically. “But we like to do the radiation anyway.”
“Sure,” I said. “Why wouldn’t you.” I’ve looked it up. They call that radiation “the magic bullet”. Because thyroid tissue is unique, they can tie the poison to iodine and destroy only remaining thyroid tissue, leaving the rest of you unharmed. Even if, by some miracle, some cancerous material had moved through my lymph nodes undetected and found new home in my lungs, this radiation would cure me.
It was hard news to hear, though it’s good news, all in all. You don’t get better cancer news than this. But of all these months, it was only the possibility of having cancer that I was contending with. Then suddenly I had the certainty.
When I went home I finally looked at the incision. It’s huge. I knew it would be, but my mother didn’t. She couldn’t get over the size of it. 6, maybe 7 inches across. My father calls me “Nearly-Headless Nick”. It looks like evidence of violence. But it’s healing remarkably well; it’s sealed and unbloody, just a long unforgiving new smile across the bottom of my neck. It feels weird and foreign and I don’t like to touch it; it’s as if I’ve just gained a new body part, when in reality I just lost one.
They had no actual evidence of that 1.5cm. They had a well-educated hunch, and some very deft fingers on the part of the surgeon. This incision will heal into a barely noticeable line, and I will have escaped without having experienced and serious physical discomfort at all. For now I’m waiting, a little chilly and a lot sleepy, for the thyroid hormone to seep out of me in preparation for the radiation. Most of the time, I feel pretty lucky.