Last December during my sophomore year of college, I had a lot of health problems arise. I was home for Christmas break and started feeling very tired and sick all of the time. I didn’t think much of it because this had happened plenty of times since I started school the year prior. Living in a dorm with a bunch of other people means living in a dorm with a bunch of other people’s germs. I also wasn’t breathing very well but I thought this had something to do with the seasonal/situational asthma I had been diagnosed with in high school. Turns out, this wasn’t the case. What I had wasn’t aggravated asthma, the flu, or mono. What I had was cancer. It took a while to diagnose but plenty of tests and one surgery later we finally arrived at the conclusion that I had thyroid cancer.
Getting a Diagnosis
A CT scan I had of my lungs and chest showed that there was a large lump in my throat. In fact, this lump was so large that it was beginning to obstruct my trachea and causing me to have about a dime’s worth of space to breathe air through. A couple weeks later, I had a thyroid lobectomy to remedy the situation. My surgeon told me I probably didn’t have cancer. I was told people my age don’t often get thyroid cancer. I already knew someone whose 14-year-old daughter had recently had thyroid cancer and I later found out we had the same surgeon. I’m not sure he should have made that statement.
Because my case was so urgent, I had my thyroid lobectomy very soon after my CT scan and we even skipped doing a biopsy to speed along the process. Instead, the doctors tested the cyst from my throat after surgery. The lump they took out was about the size of a baseball and it turned out to be cancerous. I had to come back for another surgery to take out my other thyroid lobe and was to proceed with Radioactive Iodine Treatment.
The “Good” Cancer
After my diagnosis, I discovered that I had months of ignorant comments and exhaustion to look forward to. Some people treated me as though I weren’t sick at all, others asked if I was OK every other minute, and a select few people treated me nearly the same as always. The worst type of people, though, were the ones who diminished the seriousness of my illness by saying things like, “At least it’s the good cancer.” Yes, thyroid cancer patients don’t have to do chemo and we usually only need one or two surgeries but I didn’t have the “good” kind of thyroid cancer, let alone a “good” cancer. There is no such thing as “good” cancer. Just because the treatment for a cancer is less intensive doesn’t mean that it isn’t hard to deal with and won’t have lasting effects.
Some other unfortunate social side effects of having a cancer that wasn’t clearly cancer was the looks I would sometimes get. If I took an elevator or walked slowly because I could barely breathe and was exhausted, I would get funny or mean looks. Somebody once said to me while I was sick that people my age don’t know how good they have it. This person also said to wait until we grow up and find out how much life sucks. I had to try not to laugh. I knew that invisible illnesses could be difficult to deal with because people often don’t understand that you are really sick. I dealt with this to some extent having had anxiety and depression for years, however, it’s different when your invisible illness is a physical illness. It’s like something is actually wrong with your body. You are physically incapable of doing some things and people cannot understand because they can’t clearly see that you’re sick. I learned to communicate my sickness to others in a way they could understand and that has helped me so much. Luckily the people that I needed to understand my illness, including all of my professors, easily understood.
Staying In School
The reason why it was so important for my professors to understand my illness is because I stayed in school while I was sick. I was already in junior level classes and was taking two honors classes as well. I am an English major so almost all of my classes require extensive amounts of reading and writing, yet somehow, I stumbled through all of them and came out OK. By staying in school while I was sick, I learned that I could do anything with enough determination and hard work. I ended up getting a 4.0 for the semester and even boosting my cumulative GPA to a 3.9. Getting my grades back made me feel so good about the hard work I had to put into focus in class and on homework. Thyroid cancer makes you extremely tired and puts your brain into a horrible, jumbled up fog so focusing is not easy.
When I first began my college career, I could never say no to anything. This would end up putting me under a lot of stress. However, when I was sick I learned to say no to things. When you have a serious illness, you have to know your limits. Discovering my limits while I was sick has helped me now that I’m getting better, too. Before I was diagnosed with my cancer, I had been given the opportunity of a lifetime for a college sophomore. I was going to stage manage a musical with more than 30 cast members. I was so excited and proud to get this kind of an opportunity. When I was diagnosed, I tried to stay involved in small ways but eventually, I had to say no. I started having to say no to a lot of things. I had to say no to almost all extracurricular activities. I had to say no to work. I even had to say no to reading unless it was for school. I could listen to audiobooks though. My life was school, the hospital, and home but that’s because that was all I could handle.
Having a Home
I was so appreciative of my family in this hard time. I learned that as long as I needed a home, my family would always have one for me. After I moved into my first dorm room, my parents got rid of my room back home. However, when I needed to stay with them they put a lot of work into making a new room for me. While this room wasn’t perfect, it was still something. It was somewhere I could go when I needed it. During the time that I spent having surgeries and being on weird diets I couldn’t even make it from my dorm to my classes on my small campus. My parents and grandparents live only about a half hour from my school so I slept at both of their houses at different times and they helped me get there. My aunt also helped out a lot by looking at my homework for me when my brain couldn’t even put thoughts into words. My grandma cooked my food when I was on a weird diet, too. I could not have gotten better without the support of my family. All families have their struggles and of course mine does too but when I needed them most they were there. The cancer I had can really mess with your emotions so I know I can’t have been lovely to live with but they put up with me in spite of that as well.
A Big Discovery
All I could do for fun whenever I ran out of homework was listen to audiobooks or watch TV. I simply did not have the energy to read. This was disappointing to me as a great book lover. However, my time spent watching TV in particular benefitted me in a huge way. I realized that something I want to do one day is write for television. There are other things I want to do like stage manage and write books, but writing for television is something I have a great drive for. As luck would have it, I even got to meet some actors and writers from my favorite shows I watched while I was sick. This happened when I got to go to the Motor City Comic Con not long after I was done with my Radioactive Iodine Treatment. This discovery is one of the best things I learned while I had thyroid cancer. Who knows if I ever would have realized this if I hadn’t been sick?
One more thing to come out of having cancer in college was realizing who my true friends were. Some people who I was merely acquainted with stood behind me and supported me. This was nice and I now consider most of these individuals to be friends of mine. My best friends helped more than anyone, though. I already knew who my best friends were, of course, but I feel that helping me through this hard time made my friendship with them even stronger. My best friend from childhood goes to a different school but she made time to see me every time she came back for breaks. She also texted me more often than normal to make sure I was doing okay. Without that I don’t know what I would have done. I hadn’t felt closer to her in a long time and having that familiarity of a lifelong friendship really helped me get through the storm.
My other best friend is my roommate from that year. She was the only one outside of my family who saw me at my ugliest moments. She was the first person to see me after I found out my diagnosis. She kept the room clean while I was still staying on campus since I was much too tired and brought me food from the cafeteria when I couldn’t make it down there. This was especially helpful since I was super exhausted and it was winter. We had a lot of classes together and she recorded lessons for me when I needed to go to the doctor. She even offered to stay with me the one time I had to spend the night in the hospital. There were also plenty of offers to drive me to the ER, doctor’s appointments, and elsewhere. Most importantly she was more than happy to keep me company and even help me edit my work for class sometimes.
It’s been a few months since I finally started feeling better. I still have some weird health quirks that pop up every once in a while and I panic a bit every time something seems to be wrong with me. My immune system is pretty weak so I know I will probably get sick a couple times this semester. I’m doing a lot better overall though. I’m really excited to get back into the swing of things. I learned a lot about myself and those I surround myself with from being sick. I’m grateful for what I’ve learned but I hope that it doesn’t always take a huge setback to teach me the important lessons in life.