March 17, 2023 - by Jennifer Ringler, MS
“Did I ever tell you about the time I fell off my bike and got thyroid cancer?”
I love starting my cancer journey story this way. It sounds completely illogical (especially coming from someone who tells health and science stories for a living), evokes a guaranteed reaction of surprise, and draws my listener(s) in so they want to hear more. It also happens to be (sort of) true.
In the spring of 2016, at some point I said to my husband, “I wish I had a bicycle. I’d love to get on a bike and be outside more.” Lo and behold – the universe heard me and gave me a bike. A few weeks after I expressed my wish for a bike out loud, my husband and I were walking the dog and passed a house on our street with a bicycle at the curb. The garage door was open, and someone was clearly cleaning out the garage. We approached and asked if the bike at the curb had been parked there by one of the homeowner’s children or if it was being discarded. She told us to take it, and said it was in perfectly good shape except for needing some air in the tires.
I don’t think I ever got around to using the bike that season, or if I did, it may have been a couple experimental rides around the block to refresh my muscle memory, as I hadn’t been on a bike in 20 years or so. The bike ended up in our garage, largely forgotten.
Fast forward to the spring of 2017, and I was listening to the audiobook of The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin—a wonderful nonfiction account of a woman who spends a year consciously trying to add more activities that bring her joy into her life. (Sidebar – this is a fantastic book and you should absolutely read it.)
One of the small-but-meaningful changes Rubin makes in her life in her pursuit of happiness is to spend more time outside. I remember, vividly, when I was listening to this section of the book, upstairs in my home gym while speed-walking on my treadmill. I was inspired by Rubin’s words and immediately decided I would try to spend more time outside, too. “She’s right,” I thought. “There’s something about a fresh breeze and direct sunlight and birds chirping that makes you instantly feel happier. I should be doing that, not walking on this boring treadmill in this stuffy room.”
(This is a long journey. Bear with me – I’m getting there.)
That weekend, I steadfastly unburied my new-old bicycle from under the junk in our garage and resolved to take it out for a spin. I was cruising around the neighborhood, feeling proud of myself for doing something I was a little scared of (turns out, getting on a bike as an almost-34-year-old when you’ve spent the past two decades living your life as a recliner-hermit is pretty scary).
On the fourth or fifth spin around my block, I took a corner too close to the curb and wiped out. My new-old bicycle and I toppled to the asphalt and I landed on my right shoulder, bumping my face on the curb. I ended up with skinned knees and a cut lip like a middle-schooler but was otherwise fine. The bike went back into the garage.
Over the next week, I noticed a pain in my right shoulder that felt like nerve pain, and it seemed to be getting progressively worse, not better, as the days went by. I eventually ended up in urgent care, asking for an MRI. The result? “Your shoulder is fine, but you know about that dark spot on your thyroid, right?”
Um. What dark spot?
At the time, I only had a vague idea of what – and where – the thyroid was.
This led to more imaging tests to get a clearer picture of my “dark spot,” which let to a finding that doctors wanted to learn more about with a fine-needle biopsy. And let me tell you, if you’ve never had to sit perfectly still in a chair with your neck exposed while someone sticks a long needle into your throat multiple times to suck out little tissue samples, well, then, you just haven’t been living your life to the fullest. (“Do not sneeze. Do. Not. Sneeze.”)
Once the results came in – papillary thyroid cancer – I launched headlong into the longest, deepest sadness of my life. I was not one of those patients who faces cancer with optimism, faith, and a fighting spirit. On the contrary, I cried for the whole month leading up to my surgery. I couldn’t come to terms with the fact that this was real, and that something was happening to me that I had no control over.
I wasn’t really afraid of dying, because many doctors and nurses along the way had assured me that the mortality risk of thyroid cancer was very low. I wasn’t afraid of chemo, because I was told I wouldn’t need it anyway. I wasn’t even worried about the risks of surgery – I have a healthy and well-placed trust in medical professionals. I also research and write about diseases and therapies for a living, so I did lots of research and knew that it was very likely I would be just fine. And yet, the deep, profound sadness, the shock, and the “why me” feeling of it all would not leave me. I cried and refused to come to any form of acceptance right up until the moment when I hugged my husband and (on my 34th birthday) was wheeled to the OR.
In the end, the surgery went fine, I take synthetic thyroid hormones daily, and I’ve been cancer-free for six years, seven months, and eight days.
Looking back, what I remember most about my entire cancer journey is the people. Human relationships. Human interactions. Human kindness. I remember all the little moments with nurses, patient liaisons, imaging technicians, and friends and family.
I remember sitting on the crinkly paper on the exam table at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center when my diagnosis news was only days old, while a nurse rattled off all the things I would need to know about life after surgery – daily calcium supplements, medication schedules, foods to avoid. I remember breaking down sobbing in the middle of her speech and saying through my tears, “I’m sorry. Can you please slow down? This is a lot and I’m really overwhelmed. I don’t event want to be dealing with this.” I remember the instant shift in her body language, the look of empathy on her face, and the softening of her tone as she broke from what was routine work for her and realized that this was anything but routine for the patient sitting across from her.
I remember my pre-op appointment where I met my surgeon, the talented and kind Dr. Snehal G. Patel, for the first time. He listened to all my questions patiently, made eye contact, and did his best to ease my fears. I remember when I asked him how many times, in all the thyroidectomies he had performed, he had accidentally damaged or removed the parathyroid glands and he looked me directly in the eyes and said, “Zero.”
I remember as he was talking that I was feeling antsy, just wanting to know when this surgery was going to happen, so they could hurry up and get this terrible thing out of my body before it did real harm. I remember when I cut him off mid-sentence and asked, “Do we have a date yet?” and he looked at the papers in his hands and said, “Yes, August ninth.” I remember the widening of his eyes and the look of astonishment on his face when I replied, “That’s my birthday.” He apologized (not your fault, doc) and asked if I wanted to reschedule. “No,” I told him. “it’s fine. Let’s just get it out.”
I remember the anesthesiologist who introduced himself to me an hour before my surgery. I remember the kind people in the OR who assured me I was in good hands. I remember how efficient and organized and calming every person I spoke to on the phone was during scheduling, logistics, appointments, etc. I remember the thoughtful touches of snacks and water in the waiting area while my husband and I waited six hours to be called into a room to prep me for surgery. I remember the nurse who helped me in and out of bed to use the bathroom at 3:00 a.m. during my one-night stay after surgery.
These memories come to me in visual flashes – little snippets of a whole picture, small moments of brightness in a two-month cloud of darkness and depression and fear.
And I remember the people and encounters from outside the healthcare system as well. I remember my husband sleeping in a chair by my hospital bed all night, feeding me tasteless little silver-dollar hospital pancakes the next morning. I remember the cards, flowers, and even a hand-made scarf I got in the mail in the weeks after my surgery from my Health Comms grad school alumni, who understood the weirdness of being on the other side of a health communications story.
I remember my college roommate and lifelong friend sending me the coolest thyroid necklace in the mail, and going to a book signing of one of my favorite authors to get a book signed for me because I wasn’t up to going. I remember my first social outing, a week or two after surgery, where I went to the movies with my bestie and felt so grateful and relieved that he didn’t seem to be judging me or treating me any differently because of the little bandage on my throat or the presumably ugly scar underneath. I remember the thyroid cancer ribbon and T-shirt I received from my sister, a survivor of breast cancer who knew the ups and downs of the cancer journey all too well. I remember my husband bringing me ice cream and chocolate pudding and helping me prop up to sleep in a little makeshift pillow-fort because it hurt too much to sleep lying down and trying to sit back up again.
I find it so interesting when I look back on that time with the advantage of six years of hindsight, that the memories that feel the most tangible and reachable to me now are not the tests, or the tears, or the doctor appointments, but the people. The moments of beautiful humanity along the way. I will never forget – and can never thank enough – every individual who did what they could to be a tiny bright spot in a really dark time. I’m an introvert and a loner by nature, but surviving cancer has taught me that human kindness is everything.
This is a long-winded tale and I’m not sure it has a moral or a takeaway, or is anything more than self-indulgent catharsis. But I will say that, as someone who helps pharma, biotech, and med device companies tell their stories and reach their audiences (healthcare professionals and patients alike) for a living, there is a lesson here. The immense value and impact of real, human moments – and the fact that everything we do in this industry is for people who are going through something hard, whether that’s cancer or a rare disease or a chronic illness – is never far from my mind.