No power for eight days. Our house was 31 degrees inside. We bounced around–a couple of nights here and there, and then spent a few days near Lake Michigan where the frozen waves made it feel as if we were on another planet.
We were finally able to get back in the house the day before New Year’s Eve. I made gumbo. It felt good to be able to cook, and to cook food from home–soul food in every way.
I was happy to be eating solid food.
I was happy not to have any more anesthesia in my system.
Yesterday, I had my post-op appointment. The super surgeon was all tan from spending time in the sun somewhere. I didn’t ask where, but for a second I regretted not going to sun, and I think I was a little resentful, maybe not resentful, but maybe for a moment I thought, hey, shouldn’t you be researching thyroid cancer all the time? I gloated about MSU’s Rose Bowl win as if I know anything about football, and then it was time for business. He reviewed the pathology report, went over things line by line. My cancerous nodule was .8 centimeters. If it was over 1 centimeter I would have needed radiation. He drew a picture of how small it was:I affectionately call it the tiny death planet of hell.
He said it was the best case scenario, stage 1 Papillary thyroid cancer, no high-risk features, 1-2% chance of recurrence. “We consider you cured,” he said.
But there are follow-ups. Just to be safe. An ultrasound in six months, another one in a year. And then blood tests forever.
But cured. Okay.
An old, dear friend from high school wrote to me and told me about his cousin who had thyroid cancer, how the cancer (much more advanced than mine) came back twice, how she kept fighting and did what she needed to do, including going to see a shaman in South America, until it was gone, how she incorporated her neck scar into her Halloween costume.
Another friend, Lillian Reeves, whose mother died of breast cancer just a year ago sent me a message. One of the many powerful things she told me was this: “And finally, there is the task, and the very hard task, of embracing the beauty and the betrayal of life going on.”
They call thyroid cancer the “good cancer” because of the high survival rate, especially when it’s caught early. All of this is great. It really is. But it’s still cancer.
This is the part I couldn’t put in when I first wrote this:
Before I saw the surgeon, I had to get my blood drawn to make sure my calcium level is okay. Who knew there are four glands behind your thyroid that control calcium? Who knew that calcium isn’t just about bones, how important it is for our nervous and muscular systems?
During a thyroidectomy the parathyroid glands can sometimes be removed because of their proximity. Sometimes people have to take calcium pills forever. As a precaution, I’ve had to take six a day. I hate the calcium pills. They are for horses. (Interesting side note: Richard Owen first identified the parathyroid glands in a rhinoceros.)
I was sitting, waiting for them to call my name to get my blood drawn, Django sitting next to me, when I started to cry. Shit. I wasn’t prepared for this, this sudden welling up, of what? Django was looking at his phone. I told myself to stop it. Everything was okay. I was fine. It could’ve been worse. Over the past month, I saw people being wheeled in the hallways where it was evident it was worse. My surgery was in the children’s hospital where I heard and saw children who aren’t supposed to be sick, children who are supposed to be children somewhere else, not in a hospital. I tried to pretend as if I wasn’t crying, but the tears kept coming. Shit. Fuck. I’m fine.
It wasn’t working.
“So I think, maybe, I still have some trauma from the surgery, from this place.”
Django looked up, saw my face, put his hand on mine. “Of course you do. It’s okay.”
They called my name. “Sorry for the wait. How are you?”
My calcium level is fine. I can wean myself off the horse pills to just one or two a day for overall bone health. Everything’s fine.
I want to believe in what “cured” is supposed to mean, but as long as there’s a chance of recurrence, however low, I’ll worry. I’ll worry for the next six months and I’ll worry for the next year. Maybe I’ll worry a little less after next year.
A few weeks earlier, after my pre-op appointment I needed music, so we went to Encore Records on Liberty Street. I bought a couple of Nina Simone albums. When I was looking through the bins, I remembered an older friend of ours once describing hearing Nina Simone perform ages ago in a small club in London, the magic of it, the awe and intensity. I never felt compelled to buy any of her records. Her voice always felt too heavy for me, not something I’d want to throw on and listen to, but after the pre-op in which I learned about the worst possible things that can happen during surgery I thought, Okay, maybe I’m ready to hear you now. After the post-op, we went to Encore again and I bought a few more of her records. One is a 1980 reissue of Here Comes the Sun, which I fell into as soon as we got home.
My husband asked me why Nina Simone, why was I suddenly buying her records? I told him I didn’t know.
“Something about her voice goes with cancer,” I said.
“Is that how she died?”
I didn’t know, so I looked it up. She died of breast cancer when she was seventy years old. I ordered her autobiography.
Tonight we get more snow. Early Friday morning, the day we drove to Ann Arbor for the post-op, it was -9 degrees. Weather conditions over the next few days are such that people are using words like “polar vortex,” “frostbite,” “dangerous conditions,” and “bitter cold.”
Michigan doesn’t get many days of sun a year. Since living here, Ray Bradbury’s brutal story “All Summer in a Day” has taken on even more meaning. When we were at Lake Michigan, we got to experience one of those rare sunny winter days, a visible sun setting beyond frozen waves. It’s already been a long, long winter. Of course I miss the sun. But over the past few years I’ve grown to appreciate the varying degrees of brightness in a gray day, and “cured,” what this word is supposed to mean, is a heavy, warm thing, like someone’s hand resting on top of yours. Or Nina Simone’s voice.