Waiting. We wait for a bus, for a vacation, for the end of the movie, for word, for forgiveness, and in my case, for forty-two years.
I was twenty-five that morning when I dropped my daughter off at my parents home on my way to work and my mother greeted me with a look of stricken grief and an outstretched hand in which she held a small newspaper clipping. From the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle’s Op-Ed page, it was a brief letter to the editor from a healthcare worker blowing the whistle on the high incidence of thyroid cancer linked to the ‘miracle cure’ of x-rays administered twenty years earlier to patients in the Rochester area to treat neck, throat and face ailments. As I read, the world turned from color to grayscale and I felt as though my eyes were seeing the printed words through a tunnel. My stomach turned and I had to sit down. I could see the doctor’s face, feel the lead shields on my eyes again.
My mother cried as she told me how sorry she was, that she didn’t know, and that if they hadn’t radiated my adenoids to shrink them, I would probably have gone deaf. And there it was. Not only was there the radiation to treat acne that I remember from my teens, but another potentially cancer-causing dose when I was four years old that I had never even heard about. Had I been older, maybe I’d have taken this news with a little more equanimity, but as a single, working mother still trying to feel comfortable with adult responsibilities, it walloped me blindside.
Tests, examinations and scans followed, and no abnormalities were found. This vigilance continued yearly for the next 37 years, my mind eventually reassured by the fact that the onset of this cancer generally occurs within twenty years of the radiation date. At 24, I had already passed that mark for my first exposure; at 35 I passed the second, and although I felt somewhat out of the woods, I continued to have yearly blood tests and physical exams.
Eventually my thyroid began to increase in size and get lumpy, even though functioning properly, and I was referred to a new endocrinologist who performed yearly ultrasounds on it – the same doc using the same machine each time.
“It’s big, it’s ratty, come back in a year,” was what he’d say. And I would.
And then, this fall, the pronouncement: “It’s big, it’s bumpy, your thyroxin levels are normal, but I DON’T LIKE IT. It needs to come out.”
Two months later I write this with a grin that just doesn’t want to go away. That “ratty”, big, properly-functioning gland came out two weeks ago, and it contained a very tiny (4mm) papillary carcinoma – the cancer most commonly caused by radiation. It’s gone, removed, done with. It’s so strange to feel elation over the loss of a functioning body part, but that is what I feel.
I wish I could tell my mother that she did the right thing when she accepted the radiation treatment for me, a decision she mourned deeply. I’m so grateful for all the years I have sung and listened to music, for being able to hear my friends and loved ones and the natural sounds around me. I am so grateful to the medical team that brought me through this surgery at precisely the right time and finally vanquished the shadowy devil from my subconscious. My wait is finally over.