A Decade of Surviving

This year, I reached an important milestone in my cancer journey.  I'm ten years out from my first cancer.  It's hard to remember now what my life was like before cancer, but I vividly remember the first time I heard "You have cancer."  It changes everything instantly.

I was young, in my twenties, and my personal health was something I just took for granted then, as most young people do.  I was never one to go to the doctor, I was never sick.  But I remember when that all changed.

A lingering cold that sort of settled in my throat and wouldn't go away, coupled with some rapid weight gain, prompted me to give in and see a doctor.  Those were the days when cancer never crossed my mind.  No one I knew then had ever been diagnosed with the disease and I knew I just had a cold and bad eating habits.

I was wrong.  The doctor felt my neck and glands, and then moved down to my thyroid area.  At that time, I had no idea what a thyroid was or did for your body.  But this doctor said mine felt enlarged and sent me off for an ultrasound.  The test revealed a lump on each side of my thyroid.  A fine needle aspiration followed, and those results came back inconclusive, but suggestive of thyroid cancer.  Surgery to remove and test a small piece of my thyroid gland would be the only way to find out definitively.

I was terrified.  I had never even had a broken bone or stitches, let alone a major operation.  And I knew going into surgery that I could wake up temporarily hoarse from the operation in that delicate area surrounding my vocal chords, or I could lose my voice forever.  I might never sing again, something I do when I'm not at my day job, and my day job producing and voicing TV stories could be over.  That's on top of knowing it could be cancer.

I woke up from the surgery, voice thankfully unharmed, asking, "Do I have cancer?" repeatedly.  They couldn't tell me then, but they tested the tissue and called me in about a week to give me the news.  It was the surgeon himself who called.  I knew enough to know it wasn't a good sign that he was calling personally.  He said, "It's cancer.  You need to come back and we need to take the whole thing out."

From that moment on, life changed.  It just does, whether you like it, or you're ready for it, or not.  I no longer take my health for granted.  I'm thankful to be here, a decade later, talking about my cancer journey.  I really can't remember what it was like to not know about cancer and everything that comes with it.  Sometimes, I see old pictures and realize there is no scar on my neck and that the photo must've been taken BC (before cancer).

I faced another cancer two years after thyroid cancer.  I was diagnosed with melanoma on my right calf.  Thankfully, like my thyroid cancer, it was caught very early.  I had a minor surgery to remove tissue around the spot where the cancer was found, but didn't need treatment beyond surgery.  I know I dodged a bullet on that one.  Melanoma is a tough cancer to treat.  I remember the surgeon telling me, "You're young, you're a fair-skinned redhead.  You're probably going to have another melanoma in your lifetime."

I'm vigilant about trying to prove that surgeon wrong, and I'm careful about protecting my skin, and the rest of my body from another cancer.  But I no longer allow myself to spend my days worrying and wondering when the other shoe might drop.  Eventually you get through that period in your cancer journey and realize you can't control the "what if's."  You have to focus on what you can control.  You can eat healthy foods, exercise most days of the week and avoid smoking.  Countless research has proven those three things we have control over seem to make a difference in keeping cancer at bay.

Yes, I have bouts of allowing the "what if's" to creep back in.  That usually happens when I'm due for a scan, or if some spot pops up on my skin, or I feel a lump in my throat area.  But the 10-year survivor in me knows to just go get it checked out.  I am living proof that it is better to have the aches and pains checked out early, when they are easier to treat, than to wait and wonder.

I don't know how that 20-something girl I was when diagnosed was able to handle all that cancer threw in my direction.  The woman in me today would really like to leave that part of my life behind.  But the truth is, it will always be a part of me.  That diagnosis shaped my life and made me who I am today-I'm a cancer survivor!