Photo courtesy of Christine Coppa
I was reclined in a chair in a small dark room, the glow of a computer monitor, the only light on. The door opened and a friendly woman in a white coat entered the room. I shifted in the seat, the paper crinkling under me. The tech asked me to lay back and look up so she had access to my neck. The ultrasound instrument had cold gel on it and when she pressed over the right side of my neck, it felt tender. I knew then something was wrong — even though I was skeptical when my GP ordered this test after feeling a lump on my neck, telling me, eh, it was probably nothing.
My dad took me to the test. On the drive home, his friend, a radiologist, associated with the practice I had just left, called with the results so I didn’t have to wait. Over Bluetooth: “Your daughter has a substantial mass on the right side of her thyroid. It’s over 4 centimeters - it’s big, this is a problem. It needs to be addressed.”
I was expressionless.
Back at home, my brother, Carlo, was there, babysitting my son, Jack, 6 (at the time) and our brand new golden retriever puppy, Lucy who “excited peed” as soon as I walked in. I clipped her leash on and took her out. She sniffed for a spot and I squinted up at the clouds, knowing I was about to board a train and start a new journey into the unknown. But all I had planned for the summer was freelance writing and going to the beach.
Back inside, my dad and brother left. I made Jack dinner, played Lego, and took Lucy for her nightly walk. We didn’t talk about the mass on my neck. Jack was busy pointing at clouds, declaring, “a queen’s throne” or “a bee wearing a hat.” I was focused on leash training Lucy, who was being stubborn and adorable.
Everything started happening really fast. At an imaging center, a tech directed me to change into a gown and lay down on the table. “This injection is going to make you feel like you have to pee.” Awesome, I thought. The table slid under the CT scan machine. I stared up at the white casing, needle in my arm. I took deep breaths when I was told. In those few minutes I thought about my son, how I should be home working, never riding in a hot air balloon (random, I know) or traveling to Greece. Soon my body was warm. It tasted like there was a penny in my mouth and, oh yes, it felt like I was peeing my pants. That test ended.
Photo courtesy of Christine Coppa
Next, I was led down a hallway for a needle biopsy. This scared the sh-t out of me after I’d spent the night before searching “needle biopsy thyroid tumor.” The images and content were not fun. The nurse gave me a sedative (AMEN) that kicked in quickly and made me feel fuzzy. Reclined in a seat, like a dental chair, with a metal tray of tools next to me and a heated blanket over my body, the doctor joined me. The stick of the local anesthetic pinched and stung. I refused to look at the giant biopsy needle that was to extract blood, fluid, and cells from the tumor in my neck. I only felt pressure. A pathologist rushed in and did some fancy frozen pathology. The rest of the stuff was sent to the lab.
I was sleepy from the sedative when I got home and Jack noticed, so I perked up with a cup of green tea and colored with him. He didn’t know where I had been or what was happening at this point. I liked it that way.
The result to those two tests came back bad. I found out over the phone I had thyroid cancer while I was making Jack a grilled cheese and Lucy was lying on my feet, begging for a piece of yellow cheese. I couldn’t react. We ate lunch. Surgery was scheduled though, so I needed to tell Jack something. After all I would be staying overnight in the hospital and come home with a bandage on my neck, in pain, not thrilled with life. I couldn’t bring myself to say cancer to my blond boy with giant brown eyes. I waited until the day before my surgery because I didn’t want to cause him anxiety.
“Mommy has a silly boo-boo in her neck and I need the doctor to help me get it out,” I said. “Like what?” Jack asked. I let him feel the lump. “That feels like a big grape, mommy. Can he pull it out through your mouth or nose?” I told Jack the doctor needed to cut my neck open a little bit and then I had to rest at the hospital so he could check on the “Band-Aid.”
But once I told him he was going to spend a few days on the Jersey Shore with his uncle Carlo, he perked up and asked if we could get a green boogie board. I was happy he was looking forward to playing in the waves and eating ice cream at the Beach Plum while I handled my grownup stuff.
My first surgery didn’t go great. The doctor removed the right side of my thyroid and the tumor. But pathology revealed I had a rare cancer, called Follicular Variant of Thyroid Papillary Carcinoma. This meant I needed to be reopened to remove the other side of my thyroid, go on Synthroid for life, and then discuss further treatment options, like radiation or chemo. My oncologist wanted to do it soon, but Jack’s first day of first grade was approaching and I refused to miss it. My family thought I was crazy. But Jack is my boy. I’m his only parent, since his dad refuses to help out (they never met). I show up for my son. That’s a deal I made a long time ago.
Photo courtesy of Christine Coppa
Breaking The News
So I went back under a few days after school was in session — only this time I had to really talk to Jack. I was scared. I still had cancer. I felt out of control and alone as a single mom, even though my family is a tremendous support system. Over ice cream at Curly’s, a local spot in town Jack loves, I told him I had cancer. I was advised to tell him somewhere where he felt happy and safe. Homemade ice cream cones seemed like a good idea. He’d heard the C-word before (my dad is a cancer survivor), but didn’t really get it. “You know how you got Strep throat and needed medicine that time? Well mom needs to go to the hospital for a little more medicine. And the doctor needs to do a little more surgery and get all my boo-boo out.”
Jack told me he wanted to karate chop it out and then we traded licks of our cones. He’s a kid and it was easy to be honest and diffuse the topic into a pile of ants swimming in a patch of drippy pink ice cream on the concrete. I needed to stay at the hospital longer than last time and I told Jack he could visit, which he was thrilled about and even more so —because Uncle Bri (my younger brother, the cool uncle) was moving in to help.
Get Your Kids Involved
The second surgery was OK. But blood work still shows cancer cells. Right now I’m on a low-iodine diet that really confused Jack. Last weekend I took him to Wendy’s and ordered him a chicken nuggets kid’s meal and nothing for myself. I peeled an orange and ate a salad from home. He couldn’t understand why I couldn’t eat a salad from Wendy’s (it’s because I need to monitor my iodine intake), but I just told him all this healthy food was helping me get strong so I can kick cancer’s butt. He giggled loudly. I said, “butt” and he’s 7 after all. We usually order pizza and Greek salad on Fridays, but my sweet boy doesn’t want to until I can eat it too. He even made us a big dinner salad to go with our steak dinner the other night (fresh veggies and butcher cut meat are green lighted for me). I had to pass on the mac ‘n cheese (SAD FACE) — but I could see Jack loved helping and getting involved. He covers me with a blanket because I’m always cold (your thyroid controls body temp, brrr or holy hot!), he let me rest in bed when my body was adjusting to the meds, and he tells me the scar on my neck is cool. (It is pretty cool.)
Jack doesn’t know I’m going for a full body thyroid cancer scan at the end of this month or taking the radioactive iodine pill, which means Lucy and he can’t live with me for 5 days because I need to be quarantined and keep them away from radiation. As a single mom, this is a lot to deal with, but I’m lucky to have my dad, mom, and brothers nearby. My dad already offered to take Jack and Lucy to his home. Brian said he’d drop off low-iodine meals.
I hope my last cancer conversation with Jack is … nothing at all. The radiation will kill this mess. I wish I could say surgeries, poking, prodding, and treatments have been my biggest concern, but Jack is. And working to pay my health insurance so I get the treatments I need.