Around this time three years ago I was sitting on an examination table in a sunny office overlooking DC. I was wearing a blue paper dress trying to make sure it was closed and searching the web to figure out which yoga class I would attend later that day. The room was just a little too cold, I had goose bumps and I rubbed my hands over my arms to try to warm them up. I was waiting to meet the man who would ultimately save my life, although I didn’t know it at the time. He was my new gynecologist, Dr. Safran.
I had just moved from Canada to Washington DC with my fiancé Matt for his new job and we were living in a perpetual state of excitement, stress and exhaustion from the move and adjusting to feeling like foreigners in our new city. Part of getting ourselves settled was to find a new gynecologist. The search for a new doctor who only worked with our insurance was a foreign concept for me, I’m from the land of “free” health care. “You mean I can’t pick any doctor I like?” I asked dumbfounded to our health insurance rep. “No, you can only pick from our list of approved providers. It’s a long list so you shouldn’t have a problem finding someone”. Fine, I guess I could deal with that. After unsuccessfully meeting with a doctor that I didn’t really like here I was waiting to meet Dr. Safran. I’d read some mixed yelp reviews (yes, here in good’ol america you can write a yelp review on your doctor) so I wasn’t sure how it would go. Would he be on his phone the whole time or answering text messages? Yelp reviews were swirling in my head when he entered.
He was a friendly middle aged white haired man with glasses and a round tan face. We went over my health history, which is to say my history of never being sick, not having a family history of illness except stroke and MS. I’ve always been in good health, I eat healthy and work out every day. He was happy to hear that. He asked how I was feeling that day. Tired, I quipped. He raised his eyebrow. I followed up by joking that I was always tired. I’d been tired for years, it’s normal. I’m a tired person, I could nap for days and that wasn’t an exaggeration. He told me this was NOT normal. I explained to him that I had mentioned this to my Canadian doctors about 4 years prior and that they had told me my iron was probably low and another time that it was likely due to my stressful advertising job and I should be taking B vitamins. I don’t think any of them ever did blood work to verify my apparent lack of vitamins but they did take my blood pressure. He examined my neck. I thought this was strange, because I’ve been seeing gynecologists since I was 15, so 14 years, and not once did I remember them doing a neck exam. Maybe it was an American thing. He asked if I was sure I didn’t have any history of thyroid problems in my family. I’m sure, I said a little shocked by the question. Aren’t people with thyroid problems fat? “I’m sending you for an ultrasound and taking blood”. He wanted to get to the bottom of why I was tired. Great, I could spend my days more productively than working out and sleeping all day. After that I didn’t think about it much except to confirm with my parents that there weren’t any thyroid problems in our family.
Two days later (yes, two. Just one of the benefits of American healthcare) I was laying on another table in a white paper gown in very warm dark room waiting for my neck ultrasound. It was cosy and I was almost asleep on the puffy pillow underneath my head. The ultrasound tech came in and chatted with me while she started the procedure. The jell was warm and and I was fascinated by the images on the screen. She suddenly got quiet and turned the screen away so I couldn’t watch anymore. I got a sinking feeling at the pit of my stomach. She asked me if I had history of thyroid disease in my family. “No!” I said, my voice cracking and feeling frustrated that everyone kept asking me this, I didn’t even know where a thyroid was until two days ago. There was a lot of clicking and pausing and clicking. When she finished she told me to stay put, she had to get the doctor. A sickly feeling of nausea was starting to come over me. I quietly called Matt. He reassured me it was probably nothing and not to worry, this is his typical canned response to most things. Forever an optimist. The doctor came in and I quickly hung up. What happened next was a blur of words which sounded like; wah wah hashimotos wah wah two nodules wah wah thyroid cancer wah wah wah probably benign.
The next few weeks were a swirl of appointments, needles, crying, biopsies, more crying and Matt telling me everything would be fine. I wanted to believe he was right but it didn’t feel that way, whenever anyone tells you that you could have cancer you don’t feel like everything is going to be fine. I felt angry and weighed down, I was just turning 30, we were planning to get married and have babies, I felt frantic that this would all be taken away from us, how could this be happening to me?
The biopsy results were in and confirmed that yes indeed it was cancer. Two spots on either side of my thyroid, one larger than the other. I was booked to have it removed in a months time and then I would undergo treatment with radioactive iodine. I had already prepared myself to hear this information, but I still sat there frozen. Matt, who attended every single appointment with me after my first ultrasound was writing down all the information in his notebook and talking to the endocrinologist. He reassured us that of any cancer to get this would be one of the preferred ones, it’s rarely bad. Only rare forms are known to move to other areas of the body. Most people who get this have a full recovery in a few months. Really? Then I started to feel guilty about being so upset about my cancer when compared to other people who are dealing with really scary cancers. It was a very confusing feeling. After that I outwardly acted like it wasn’t a big deal so that no one would judge me for being a baby over my “good cancer”, but inside I was terrified. Matt was the only one who knew how I was really feeling.
After my surgery the pathology results revealed that I did in fact have a rare and dangerous form of cancer cell growing on my thyroid, the one that likes to jump to surrounding organs. Yay for me! We wouldn’t be able to wipe our hands of this so quickly I was told. I would need to undergo a series of additional scans and radioactive iodine treatments over the next few years to ensure this nasty little sucker doesn’t set up shop somewhere else. Fine, let’s kill this f*cker.
Three years later I am beginning to prepare for yet another scan (I have to go on a special diet) and possibly more radioactive iodine. Will it by my last treatment? We don’t know. But what I do know is that I have the best husband in the world and a one year old who makes it worth getting out of bed even on the days I’d rather stay in bed and feel sorry for myself. I know that had Dr. Safran not asked me how I was feeling it’s unlikely we would have discovered my cancer in time. I know we as women need to be in charge of our own health care and ask questions, do our research, listen to our bodies and not take a brush off as an answer.