Cancer Left It’s Mark on Me

Four days ago I had my surgery to remove the cancerous growth from my thyroid and nearby lymph nodes. Four days ago I went under the knife for the first time in more than 30 years. It was a nerve-wracking experience, but one we got through okay.

Arrival at the Hospital

We were requested to check in at the hospital on the Oregon Health and Science University’s Marquam campus bright and early on January 12th. The operation was scheduled for 7:30am and we needed to be there by 6.

It was a bit of an adventure just getting there. A few days before, Portland had received near record snowfall. Nearly a foot downtown with some areas in the west hills getting almost a foot and a half.

Now, if you know anything about the Portland area you realize that they are not very well prepared for winter weather, especially of this kind. So, they do not use de-icer or salt on the roads. And the snow plows are instructed to keep their blades an inch above the road surface. I guess they’re scared of damaging the roads. Couple the snowfall with a long stretch of below freezing temperatures and you can imagine what the roads are like.

Coming from Utah I was pretty confident in my ability to navigate the snowy and icy roads, only being nervous once we got across the Willamette River and needed to head into the hills to OHSU. Luckily they keep that road clear for the ambulances and emergency vehicles. So getting there was not really a problem.

On a side note, we have had church services cancelled two weeks in a row because of the roads. People just don’t want to try and venture out. Generally speaking, they really have no idea how to handle roads like this.

But I digress…

We got checked into the Multnomah Pavilion Pre-Op desk and, after a short wait, were directed back to the pre-op area where I stripped down and put on one of those oh-so-attractive hospital gowns. Luckily my wife was there to help me tie the straps in the back as I couldn’t quite reach them well enough.

I was visited by several doctors who would be on the team while I waited and was processed. I’m in relatively good health, other than an overall lack of activity, which needs to be changed (but that’s another post), so there was really no concern about how the operation would proceed.

I kissed my wife goodbye, telling her not to worry while wearing my best poker face, and was wheeled into the operating room just after 7:30am. The last thing I remember is thinking about counting the holes in the metal plate in the ceiling.

I Woke Up Later

I don’t remember when it was I first woke up. It was dark though so I knew it must have been fairly late in the day. I was in a recovery room in the Kohler Pavilion building, I knew that because they had told me before the operation that I would have a room there for the overnight observation.

I was in and out of consciousness for a while. At the same time entertaining the nurse and my wife with my answers to her questions. They were completely coherent to me! I don’t know what their problem was.

Apparently Dr. Lim came to see me twice after the operation. I don’t remember the first time at all! But I was not under the influence of the anesthesia the second time. He explained what had happened during the operation.

From Six to Nine Hours!

The surgery was scheduled to start at 7:30am and to be completed at about 1:30pm. A long surgery. My wife was not looking forward to waiting for so long, but without any real say in what needed to be done, she held on strong.
Though when 1 o’clock rolled around and then 2 without any news, she began to get a little worried. It wasn’t until nearly 4:30pm that Dr. Lim came out to talk to her. He apologized for not sending someone out sooner with some news.

When they had dissected my neck they found two components to the main growth: one solid mass and another that was fluid filled. Both had grown on the thyroid and they stuck to the plan of a total thyroidectomy.

The problem was how the mass had grown around the right laryngeal nerve. The doctor essentially had a choice: either remove the cancer as well as the nerve or try to save the nerve while removing the mass. Because of his choice to try and save the nerve the surgery took three hours longer than expected.

The thyroidectomy was a success. All the thyroid cells plus the main mass was removed completely. They also performed a center and right neck dissection to remove all the lymph nodes in those areas.

The laryngeal nerve seems to have been left intact, but he did say that when they tested it near the end of the procedure it was not responding. His best guess is that it was just beat up and tired. So tired that it wouldn’t respond. Which is a little concerning. Without that nerve to control that right side of the vocal cords there are some complications that would arise with eating, swallowing and even breathing!

However, Dr. Lim remarked that my voice was much better than expected. So that gives him hope that the nerve was not damaged, at least not too much and that it will just require some time to heal. So I will not have very good range or volume for a few months.

The Bedside Pharmacy

I was released from the hospital in the mid-afternoon on Friday, the 13th. I have several prescriptions to help me in my recovery. Pain killers (which I haven’t felt the need to take as often as recommended), a calcium supplement as well as OTC Tums-type pills to help with calcium replacement for the first few weeks, a stool softener (which I haven’t had the need for… yet) and my friend for life: Levothyroxine. That one will be for life since, without a thyroid, I now have hypothyroidism. And just today I went back on my Lovenox injections for my DVT.

I think this is more medicine that I have to take each day now than I’ve taken my entire life combined!

That’ll Leave a Mark

Cancer has left it’s mark on me. A mark more than 6 inches long across the base of my throat. right now it is still red and swollen, but looking much better than just a few days ago.

The incision is glued shut, the glue set to peel and remove itself after a few weeks. Located low enough on the throat, a t-shirt nearly covers it and it’s far enough removed from my beard line that shaving shouldn’t be a problem. Although there is still some hesitation on my part to shave even that close to it. Maybe I’m a wuss. The scar will also be disguised by the natural wrinkling in my neck.

Final Thoughts

My battle with cancer seems so easy compared to other battles I have seen. My mother was taken early by a brain tumor that had previously gone into remission and returned much more aggressive than before. I still remember seeing her when I went home for her final days and thinking how small she looked. And she was in so much pain.

Other friends I have have beaten or are beating cancer, but having to go through the horrible chemo therapy. Killing almost as many healthy cells in their bodies as cancer cells. Being so tired and beat at the end of the day that they may question their reasons for fighting on.

In my case, though the cancer had spread throughout the region of my neck, attacking the thyroid and lymph nodes, and begun infecting the trachea; it was not an aggressive cancer. And this type does not require chemo to eradicate any remaining cells. I feel very fortunate that is the case.

A couple of days after the operation my father sent to me an article from the LDS Church News magazine: Living Up to Your Divine Attributes. It’s a very good read. I would like to share one paragraph that spoke to me at the time:

“…no matter where you live, no matter how humble your circumstances, how meager your employment, how limited your abilities, how ordinary your appearance… you are not invisible to your Heavenly Father. He loves you. He knows your humble heart and your acts of love and kindness. Together, they form a lasting testimony of your fidelity and faith.”

Pres. Dieter F. Uchtdorf