We have a routine
I feel weird about my neck. Not bad, but weird.
Until recently, my neck was just the connector of head and chest, housing bits of spine, larynx, esophagus, vocal folds – and thyroid. The thyroid is a small, butterfly-shaped organ that plays a starring role in regulating energy and metabolism.
Everything in my neck has always been present and accounted for, functioning more or less normally. Sure, my thyroid started accumulating some bumps and lumps along the way, but what body part hasn’t by middle age?
Once a year or so, my endocrinologist takes a closer look at those thyroid issues and nodules. We have a routine. She does an ultrasound, then says, “Hmm, this one looks a little wonky. I think we need to do a biopsy.” She uses a fine needle to extract a bit of tissue from that day’s offending nodule(s) and sends it off for testing. The testing comes back inconclusive, so it’s sent along for further—and significantly more expensive—genetic testing that takes a few weeks. I spend those weeks on the edge of anxiety, mentally killing myself off with any number of rare cancers. My doctor finally calls and says that everything is fine after all, and life continues as normal.
In fact, this has become so routine, that during this last round, I couldn’t even be bothered to summon up more than the mildest bit of worry. And that only was for a day or two.
When the routine goes off-script
Well. I can tell you I won’t make that mistake again. Because this time around when my phone rang, my endocrinologist went off script.
“The genetic results came in, and I’m sorry to tell you that they indicate either thyroid cancer or cells that will eventually become cancerous. It’s about a 50% chance of cancer. We’re going to have to remove your thyroid.”
This is where I began to feel weird about my neck. Once a conduit from head to body, my neck is now housing for what my boss has dubbed Schrodinger’s cancer: something that is both cancer and not cancer until the container is opened.
The month between the phone call and my surgical consult felt like it lasted at least a year. I spent the time rallying the troops – family, local friends, BAMR network (including Cynthia, thyroid and running gear guru), strength trainer, therapist – and handling my anxiety through running, eating chocolate, lifting, eating Dots pretzels, breathing, drinking G&Ts, reading trashy novels, eating chocolate, and screaming into the void.
Okay, but what does this mean for my running?
My endocrinologist had initially tended toward removing the whole thyroid, but when I expressed concerns about how that might affect my life as an endurance athlete, she pivoted to a lobectomy. It turns out that most people respond well to synthetic thyroid hormones, while an unlucky few experience unmitigated malaise. As yet, there is no way to predetermine who will be tired all the time and who can continue running marathons.
My surgeon, a marathon runner himself, concurred. And—bonus—he implicitly understood what physical movement means to my physical and mental well being. “You’d be safe to run the day after surgery. You won’t want to. But you can. I do recommend daily outdoor walks, though. And when you do start to run, maybe think about switching up your three-mile loop for a one-mile loop. You can do three miles, but if you tire out, you won’t be stuck.” He also made sure to caveat the no-lifting-for-two-weeks rule with, “that includes body weight exercises!”
Things get real, real fast
I went into the surgery with the alternating convictions that:
- I was going to die on the operating table. (It’s okay to laugh here; I laughed at myself!)
- I was going to come out feeling better than ever.
- The surgeon would find all sorts of unexpected cancer and give me a few months to live.
- Everything would be fine but I’d need some sort of thyroid replacement therapy.
The first and third scenarios were wildly improbable and, thankfully, did not come to pass. I’m still awaiting the final pathology, which is frustrating to say the least.
What I do know is that it’s nothing dire, but I’m still left with a spectrum of possibilities that range from “my thyroid functions just fine and there is no need for further intervention at this time” all the way to “there is a very slow-moving cancer that will require near-term removal of my remaining thyroid lobe plus iodine therapy.”
Settling into a new routine
What I also know is that my body continues to recover in an awe-inspiring fashion. Three weeks ago I had half an organ removed and struggled to walk the surgeon-prescribed 20 minutes. Two weeks ago I could walk two miles. One week ago I could add in some hills plus struggle through most of the workday. Running caused pain at my incision and was a non-starter. Today I can manage a handful of slow jog intervals plus a full workday.
I continue to feel weird about my neck. While I don’t feel self-conscious from a vanity standpoint, I feel like the scar preempts any desire I might have had for privacy. It’s like some kind of secular sacrament I didn’t necessarily consent to: an outward symbol of an inward change. It is, however, a (somewhat jarring) reminder that life and lifestyle may be fleeting, so live in gratitude and joy, hug my people in close, and gather my rosebuds while I may.