I Am a Cancer Survivor

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When I introduce myself to new people, I always share different parts of my identity depending upon the situation. I am a mom of two wonderful kids. I am a chemistry professor. I am originally from Michigan but love living in the Northeast. I am a coffee addict and occasional tea drinker. I research to develop new treatments for bacterial infections. And on and on.

The thing is, there is another part of my identity that I rarely share. I am a cancer survivor (at least for the moment).

Of all the other parts of my identity, the traits I talk about are either a choice or a gift from birth. Getting diagnosed with cancer was a complete shock, and it was also not news that I ever would have wanted or have chosen.

During my 2016 annual checkup with my OB/Gyn, my doctor felt my throat and said that she noticed something. She told me not to worry, “It was probably nothing,” because 95% of thyroid nodules are non-cancerous. She ordered bloodwork, “Just in case.” The bloodwork came back abnormal, so she ordered an ultrasound. The ultrasound also came back abnormal.

It took calling four different medical practices and waiting three weeks until I could get an appointment with an endocrinologist who could order a biopsy and genetic sequencing to learn definitively if I had cancer (which entailed waiting yet again).

My doctor called me after hours to share the news. My diagnosis was Stage II Thyroid Cancer, with a mutation in my B-Raf protein (V600E) with suspected metatheses to nearby lymph nodes.

The odds hadn’t been with me. I had cancer.

When I told my dad, a doctor, and he said I was lucky. “That is the best kind of cancer you can have as a woman.” I was like, uh, sorry, no types of cancer are “lucky” to have or can be called “best.” I was angry and crying at the same time. He bore the brunt of my frustration, and then he calmly pointed out to me that thyroid cancer has the highest 5-year survival rate of everything but testicular cancer.

Survival rates are never something you want to think about. But I knew he was right since I had already lost two friends to metastatic breast cancer. I could rationally appreciate that I was lucky to “only have thyroid cancer.” Nonetheless, I was still angry and scared. I had already defied the odds of having cancer. I didn’t have faith that I might not defy those survival odds.

My brain got stuck on repeat. My babies were still so little, 6 and 3 years old. I needed 40+ more years so that I could experience all of the benchmarks of their lives. I needed to have a higher survival rate to ensure I could help celebrate their successes and joys. I had to be there to reassure them when their hearts broke or they experienced failure.

I wanted to collapse from stress and exhaustion, but at the same time, I couldn’t sleep because of anxiety. I was terrified of what was to come.

Thankfully, my scientific tendencies kicked in. As Matt Damon said in The Martian, I was “Gonna have to science the $#!+ out of this.”

I started reading up on the latest research developments and clinical trials. I figured out who in my personal and professional network worked as a patient advocate and asked them what I should make sure to do. I logged on to the National Comprehensive Cancer Network and read their guidelines for cancer patients. I read all of the thyroid surgeons’ reviews in the state and at other hospitals near and far like Memorial Sloan Kettering, Dana-Farber, Mayo Clinic, Cleveland Clinic, etc.

I scheduled an appointment with a Yale Smilow Cancer Hospital physician, and while I was counting down the days, I wrote out two pages of questions I wanted to ask. What are the risks of this side effect? What are the chances of this or that complication? What could she do to help make sure that I had those 40+ years to spend with my children and watch them grow?

She answered all of my questions, made me feel seen and heard. Her nurse got me on the schedule for surgery ASAP. After surgery, I scheduled a second opinion from someone at Memorial Sloan Kettering, who looked at all of my data and asked for all surgical samples. She concurred with the diagnosis and the follow-up plan. Six weeks of recovery later, I got radiation.

And for basically six months, I was an emotional wreck. Over time my anxiety about recurrence and my own personal survival rate started to become less and less. I was checked every three months the first year. And since then, I have had bloodwork and checkups every six months. I have felt anxiety with each checkup, but the amount and the length of time that it starts before my appointment is a little less each time.

Overall, I have been lucky. And except for once, when my medication was out of whack, I have been told that I am in remission each time.

As I approach the 5-year anniversary of my diagnosis, I realized that I could finally share this part of my identity without getting upset and without triggering a lot of concerned thoughts. It is now starting to feel like a trait that belongs to me.

So while I have rarely included it in my introduction of myself to others, I have shown that I am a Survivor. I am lucky, and unless things change, being a cancer survivor will more and more become a part of my identity that I might share when I describe myself.

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Erika is a professor of Chemistry and Environmental Studies and mom to two kids (2010 and 2013) plus two cats (2005 and 2019). A Midwestern transplant who has lived in 32 places, she has happily called Fairfield her home for the past 12 years. At work, she directs a program to support first-generation and underrepresented student success in science. In town, she can often be found driving her kids back and forth to their respective sporting events and teams or sitting in a coffee shop using the wifi to get a little work done before pick up. Erika loves spending time enjoying the water, cooking, theater, reading, and hanging out with her husband.

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