Three weeks ago, I went to the hospital for surgery. They removed half of my thyroid, because it had developed nodules (what they call thyroid tumors they suspect are benign) and had swollen up enough that it pressed against my trachea, and the nerve that controlled my vocal cords. I was having trouble breathing, at times, and my voice had started to go froggy. Of course, there was the year, going on two, before that of me starting to go downhill physically – tired all of the time, gaining weight, struggling to stay on task or complete things on time – but after dealing with a doctor who insisted it was just me being a woman, getting older, I’d found one who was actually willing to do lab work and sort it out. I was diagnosed with anemia, and started medication for that. Aside from the pressure on my throat, I should have been on the mend.
I didn’t quite feel it, though. A little better… but still, something was wrong.
We agonized over the decision to cut out part of my thyroid. It’s a simple, safe, outpatient procedure, except that it’s still surgery, which is never guaranteed 100% safe. My SO and I talked it over, made plans for dealing with what would come next if I didn’t make it out okay, and decided (supported by my surgeon’s opinion) that it’s better to get the swollen part of my thyroid out now before it got bigger and did some real damage. I felt it, a literal lump in my throat, every time I swallowed. Every time I tried to exercise and had to breathe harder. When I laid down for sleep, and the lump shifted a little, pressing on a new spot I hadn’t yet learned to ignore.
Your thyroid is a butterfly-shaped organ that lies flat, for most people, and has the volume of a peanut on each side. My right side wasn’t visible from the outside, so you wouldn’t know unless you saw a sonogram that it was the size of a jawbreaker, and growing. Inside were two nodules; the bigger one had been biopsied three times since it was found three years ago, and declared benign, though I was told in 2013 that it was collapsing and would get smaller – we discovered in May that it had actually gotten larger.
The smaller one was labeled “suspicious” by the sonogram tech during this round of tests, but was .1 mm too small for a biopsy to be considered necessary, according to the current medical guidelines, so I was told not to worry. We’d wait, they said, and check on it again next year.
If I hadn’t opted to remove the larger side of my thyroid, that nodule would still be there.
I was nervous, going in. I focused on how (based on my previous experience of surgery) I wouldn’t remember being wheeled into the room. I would just blink, at some point in the morning, and be waking up in the afternoon. I focused on the possible side effects, how I’d been reassured they were so unlikely as to be barely worth mentioning, how even if they happened, I would survive – if I had to take calcium because too much of the parathyroid gland was removed, well, that was okay, I was already taking iron everyday anyway; if I lost my voice for a while, or forever, because the nerve to my voicebox was damaged, I could wait for it to heal, or adjust to a life of whispers. My whispers are sexy anyway. And besides, it was all better than being dead. As long as I woke up, I could handle any bad news.
I focused on my person, who was coming to get me after work, whose face was worth waking up for.
After the nurses struggled with an iv (couldn’t place it in my left hand, which I’d warned them about, and got a big bruise to show for it, but found a spot easily in my right hand, and thus, no bruise), and the anesthesiologist came to discuss the procedure, and the surgeon came in to draw on my neck – she signed it, too, like I was a rockstar’s groupie – and I got queued up for my turn in the operating theater, I blinked, and sleepily blinked again, waking up in the early afternoon, surgery already complete.
I like waking up.
My surgeon (a petite older woman who must be my mother’s age, and who I’d recommend to anyone, again and again) came by to check on me. “We got it all out, no problems,” she said. “It was hard as a rock, though,” she added. “No wonder it was bothering you. We’ll get it to a lab and let you know.”
That was the first time my doctors seemed pleased I’d chosen to get the surgery. The first validation. Up until then, it was all on me: I could get it now, and that was okay. I could wait a while, and that was okay, too. Whatever you want to do, they said. Of course, with that, I questioned my decision until the moment I went under. Maybe I was overreacting? Maybe I should just live with it? Maybe it wasn’t really a problem, and I was risking a surgery over nothing?
I felt good, though. I hadn’t lost my voice at all, which was happens to most patients at least for a few days (I told you my surgeon was great). Nothing hurt. I rested for a few hours but was recovering so well they decided to kick me out early, which left me scrambling for a buddy to pick me up – the hospital wouldn’t discharge me alone, and my person couldn’t leave work early – but my friend Heidi rescued me and got me home. 20 minutes later, my SO arrived, and fussed over me until I assured him I was fine, really, come snuggle me. Half an hour later, Logan was dropped off, and everything was back to normal. We got a pizza, and watched a little tv until I got tired again; I expected to rest through the weekend, and (over some protests) sent my person home to catch up on work and writing rather than worrying about me while I slept. I did sleep, for most of the next 48 hours.
The only thing I’m mad about is that I lost my Fitbit, somehow. Searched the whole house, several times since. It’s just gone.
There is a special joy in waking up very late on a Sunday morning to the frantic realization that your barely-teenage son probably needs clean clothes and a breakfast, only to find he’d cooked his own food, and even done a load of laundry, without any prompting. When you consider that Logan has a speech disorder so severe that 10 years of speech therapy has barely made a dent, and for years he was considered autistic because of he could only talk at a toddler’s level, but there he was, taking care of himself, putting me back to bed and drawing the blankets up so I would be comfortable… I am so proud of my kid. I don’t know how I got such a good boy.
I kept up with people online in little bursts between sleeping, for most of the first week. I felt better, though, much better than expected, and when I woke up from sleeping, I was really awake. When I got tired, I didn’t stay exhausted and useless all day; I went back to sleep, woke up, and was fine. Like most people do, I imagine, but I hadn’t, in a long time.
Ten days after surgery, my surgeon took out my stitches, declared me to be healing well, and suggested another week or two of rest. She also handed me the lab results. The nodule they wouldn’t biopsy turned out to be cancerous. That whole side of my thyroid had started to calcify; had I left it longer, it would have spread.
“It’s a good thing we got that out of there, then,” she said. “But it’s out now, so, we’ll keep an eye on everything, but you should be fine.”
Schrodinger’s cancer. I didn’t know I had it until it was gone.
The second week was sleeping less but at weird hours. I’d go to bed at 8 pm and wake up at 2 am, wide awake until dawn, then back to bed. If it had been consistent, I could have worked around it, but it was different hours each days. The only thing each day had in common was then when I was awake, I wasn’t exhausted. I was breathing better, my voice sounded clear, and I started to get little things done. I edited a few short stories. I submitted some of my fiction to market, and read a book for the first time in months. (Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. It’s fabulous. You should read it.) I was still struggling to get back to full capacity, but surgery takes a lot out of a person, so I didn’t push too hard.
It wasn’t until Thursday night of this week that I finally had a full night of sleep. Yesterday, I woke up refreshed, and got more done in one day than I had any other single day in months. Maybe a year. Today’s been good so far, too.
I feel like I’ve turned a corner on my life. Everything’s been such a struggle lately, and while some parts are still hard (finances, school, freelancing) and some parts have always been wonderful (my love, my son) I am hopeful that I can finally manage it all. I can get my fitness back on track. I can juggle school and work and family. I can write, and get my work into the world.
At least I feel like it’s possible now. That’s enough to make it worth trying.
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