'A Thyroid Cancer Diagnosis Shortly After I Gave Birth Changed My Life'
'But for a lump in my throat, I remained asymptomatic'
The month of May 2022 has been a tumultuous one for me. As a psychotherapist, I experienced the five stages of grief firsthand this month.
I am the mother of a beautiful 1.8 year old daughter and I have an equally wonderful husband, two lovely cats, the perfect job and until May 4, 2022 all seemed to be going well - one could say I had it all.
I gave birth to my daughter in the midst of the pandemic in August 2020 via a C-section. While my pregnancy was smooth, I had one complication that had not been fully addressed post delivery - hypertension.
With the pandemic bringing on mental and physical stress both, my hypertension hadn’t gone away fully and I continue to be on hypertension medication till date.
While the medication did work, it led to a complication post-delivery that I did not foresee.
In February 2022, I had my first health complication - one night I had unbearable lower abdominal pain and was rushed to the hospital.
A sonography revealed that there was a lesion on my kidney that had ruptured and I had to undergo an SOS embolisation procedure for it.
The doctors advised me to lose weight, become fitter and revised my hypertension medication. I thought that was it - I started a fitness regime, gained more stamina, did intermittent fasting and thought to myself, “All will be well hereon.”
But, I was wrong.
'The Denial Sets In'
With the embolisation surgery which was a relatively small one, I had nearly developed an aversion to doctors, hospitals and anything to do with medical procedures.
I really did not want any more health scares and I was trying to do all I can to avoid those.
But one morning, as I walked into the kitchen for a cup of chai, my cook pointed to a lump in my neck and asked, “Didi yeh kya hai? Aapne check kiya doctor ke saath?” My heart sank.
I ran to my bedroom and woke up my husband from his slumber and showed him the lump. We were both baffled.
We hadn’t noticed it till then.
We immediately contacted our family doctor, Dr Jeeyani Pareek who was a bit taken aback too. She asked me if I had fever, vomiting, difficulty swallowing, breathing or speaking.
I said, “No."
She prescribed an anti-inflammatory medicine and told me to take it for a week or so and see if the lump goes away.
I prayed to the Gods that it better go away. While the lump was visible on a couple of days, it seemed to go down on others. I thought to myself, it might be goitre for all we know and that should be treatable with just medication.
But every day, I woke up and checked it in the mirror, the lump never really did disappear.
My husband started getting distressed.
He contacted Dr Pareek who told us to get a sonography done immediately. I did not want to go down that route and delayed the sonography as much as I could until I didn’t have a choice left - the lump seemed to have grown in size by now.
'The Rage Engulfs Me'
In the last week of April, I went for the sonography, unwillingly.
My mind was filled with dread and I was constantly, silently praying for it to be just a swelling or goitre. As the sonography technician started the scan, he asked questions similar to what Dr Pareek had asked - whether I had fever, nausea, difficulty swallowing, etc.
And then came the question I dreaded the most, “Ma’am does anyone in your family have a history of cancer?” I replied, “No,” which was the fact - no one in my family had ever had cancer.
I asked him, “Why? Is there a problem?” to which his response was cryptic at best, “We cannot say anything at this point of time. You might need an FNAC (fine needle aspiration cytology) but please speak with your doctor for further investigation.”
I knew what this meant. As the scan progressed, I kept hearing the word I dreaded the most, “lesion”.
As I walked back home, I was angry.
Angry about the fact that this wasn’t goitre. It wasn’t a simple swelling either. And there were more diagnostic tests that were going to be lined up.
Dr Pareek then said something that started confirming the worst, “You will need to meet Dr Sultan Pradhan immediately.” I asked her, “Is it cancer?” and she replied, “We cannot rule it out, it might be.”
I didn’t know what to say. All I wanted to do was scream.
'I Try To Bargain With Fate'
Wednesday, May 4, 2022, Dr Pareek, my husband, landed at Breach Candy Hospital to meet Dr Sultan Pradhan, one of the best head and neck Surgical Oncologists in the country.
He asked the same questions to see if I had shown any symptoms till then. “Any fever? Vomiting? Difficulty breathing? Swallowing?” My reply was the same, “No.”
I really hadn’t shown any of the classic symptoms that most people with Thyroid cancers have. And I was still hopeful that Dr Pradhan would rule out cancer and just hand out the diagnosis of goitre or something else that wasn’t serious at all.
I looked at him hopefully as he did some more diagnostic examinations. He looked at my scans and then looked up at me and asked, “There are tumours in your thyroid, what would you like to do?” I bargained, “Can we let it be? Is it benign? Can we maybe try medication?”
He smiled regretfully and handed out the verdict that I detested, “We will have to do a surgery - total thyroidectomy.”
I didn’t know if I should cry or if I should smash things around in his office. I pleaded with him to try medication. I asked him what the cause was, why this had happened to me.
“Is this really cancer?” He replied, “Yes it is a tumour, there are multiple tumours but we do not know its nature for now. Only a biopsy can reveal its malignancy.” I tried bargaining again, “Okay then let’s do a biopsy and see what it is.”
But Dr Pradhan warned that it was way too risky to wait.
He asked me to wait outside and shared the details of my diagnosis with Dr Pareek who came back with the sombre news.
It really was Thyroid Cancer, the type of carcinoma was unknown but there was no choice for me but to undergo Thyroidectomy
She revealed, “If we do not do this surgery now, you will lose your voice. Dr Pradhan’s examination shows that the tumour is surrounding your voice box now and we have to act immediately.”
Your Guide to Thyroid Health & Diet
'The Depression Sets In'
I wanted to cry but I couldn’t.
I was mentally exhausted. I looked at my daughter to get hope.
I knew I had to be strong for her but didn’t know where to draw the strength from. One more surgery, one more round of medical tests and procedures.
I had taken pride until then on having great immunity, being stronger than the rest in my family. I had always been very resilient and determined until then. I didn’t know what to feel or think.
And then Dr Pareek said something that stayed with me, “Difficulties come to those who can handle them.” I took those words to heart. I had to try and make the best out of this situation.
I threw myself into work - I worked till I was wheeled in for surgery. I gave my 100 percent to engaging with my daughter. I continued to socialise, meet my friends, go for walks and continue with my health regime.
I did all I could to feel normal. It was all a way to distract myself from the hard truth that I was indeed a cancer patient.
'It Is Time To Accept'
Till the last moment, I kept looking for causes.
Dr Pradhan had told me that there was no definitive cause - it was either environmental or genetic. Like I mentioned earlier, no one in my family ever had cancer, which made accepting this even more difficult. The CT scans had revealed to a certain degree that the tumour had been malignant.
My other tests and scans including X-ray, 2-D echo, blood reports had come back fine which further mystified all of it for me.
How could this be cancer? I didn’t have any symptoms and my reports except for the CT scan all seemed clear.
As I was wheeled in for surgery, with Dr Pareek by my side, I felt numb.
My daughter was back with my family and I didn’t know what would happen.
All I knew was that I had the best doctors by my side. All I knew was I had to make this work and stay calm. All I knew was that I had to fight off my fears, somehow.
As I was given anaesthesia, I hoped that when I opened my eyes next, this debacle would end.
When I woke up next in the hospital room, I asked my husband how the surgery went.
He replied, “It was successful. You must know, it was Papillary Thyroid Carcinoma.”
I didn’t say anything. There was nothing left to say.
While my recovery has been smooth post-surgery, the dread stays.
I am yet to undergo Radioactive Iodine Therapy (RAI) which involves me taking a radioactive iodine pill of a certain dosage as advised by a Nuclear Medicine doctor which will eliminate all cancer cells, if any, from my system.
But the idea that this can happen again stays in my subconscious. I have come to terms with the fact that I did fight off cancer and I am doing well.
But when I ask Dr Pradhan whether or not there will be a chance of recurrence, he says, “God willing, there won’t be recurrence.”
'The Show Must Go On'
As I resume my normal, day-to-day life, I have learnt to move forward with hope and with a smile.
I have learnt that there are certain factors beyond my control but there are plenty within my control that I must make the most of.
I need to let go of regret and have zeal for the life ahead of me. And that I can find humour and joy even in this situation.
To all women and mothers out there, don't forget that we’re at risk of Thyroid Cancer.
There is no real underlying cause for it - like I was told by Dr Pradhan, it is genetic or environmental. As cautioned by Dr Pradhan, all we must do is:
● Stay healthy, eat well, exercise
● Be mindful of what we eat, where we source our foods from, how we cook, the levels of hygiene we maintain in our homes and kitchen
● Avoid eating outside foods
● Do not postpone your check-ups, get them done on schedule
● Do not ignore any existing conditions and injuries, get them checked
● Meditate and take care of your mental well-being, it goes a long way in ensuring better physical health
(Divya Naik is a Mumbai based psychotherapist, writer and media professional. She is passionate about women's mental health, especially perinatal and post-natal mental health and works closely with the community of therapists in the network to build on the same.)
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