As most of you know, I had my second surgery for thyroid cancer April 26, 2013–almost exactly 8 months after my first. I’m surprised I haven’t written until now, but recovery has been difficult and lengthier this time.
I had my first surgery with a different surgeon at a different hospital, so I knew this experience would be different. However, I don’t think I was really anticipating just how much different it would be.
My parents flew in from California to be with me during the surgery and to help me afterward. I picked them up from the airport the afternoon before, and we made it to University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) hospital for my surgery by 5:30 a.m. the next morning. My surgeon showed up a half hour late , so I didn’t get rolled back into the surgery room until after 8 a.m.
When I woke up from my first surgery, my surgeon was right there reassuring me, and it was a matter of minutes before I was in a private room and with my family. This time, I woke up and no one was around me. While the nurse visited occasionally over the next hour and a half, I felt very alone. To make matters worse, I had an allergic reaction to something they used in surgery, which created intense itching under my skin from my sternum to my chin. However, since the nurse wasn’t around very often, he didn’t take the time to listen to why I was crying heavily (I hate to admit this). Since my voice was weak and my throat was in pain, I couldn’t raise a voice to alert anyone’s attention. Instead, I sat weeping in my bed, wishing my family was there.
Eventually after what seemed like a lifetime, a room became available and I was wheeled to a room and able to see my family. The itching intensified over the next 6 hours, without any relief. Since my skin was so numb and I didn’t want to scratch close to my incision, I was rubbing my chin and neck for relief, but my hands felt like they were touching rubber because of the numbness. There was no relief. It felt as though thousands of ants were crawling under my skin and I couldn’t do anything about it. It was truly miserable.
I have very few allergies and interestingly, one of them is Benadryl cream. I have taken Benadryl successfully by pill before, but the nurses didn’t want to risk any further irritation, so they did very minimal dose through my IV and gave me morphine just to try and calm me down. It didn’t get better until my dad convinced them to finally wipe down the surgical prep area. I was only itching where they would have prepped me for surgery, so Dad and I thought my reaction might be from whatever sterilizing prep they used on my skin. Sure enough, after they did this, I felt exponentially better within 30 minutes. Dad said the next day, there was a clear red rash. It was such a rough way to start recovery, especially after being back in a room feeling uncared for and alone for what seemed like an eternity.
The room I was in was a double, which bothered me mostly because my family couldn’t stay as long as they could have if I was alone. For the majority of my stay, I had a very noisy roommate, which made it very difficult to sleep, and without anyone allowed in the room from 8 p.m.-11 a.m., it was rough. I was so thankful when they let me go home to recover.
After my first surgery, they sent me home the second day with heavy bandaging on my neck and nothing else. This time, I went home after three days with no bandaging, and I had a drain in my neck for five days. While it was bizarre to have to drain a bottle of liquid from my neck several times a day, it is clear that my incision is healing much better and with a much slimmer line than last time. It was also much more comfortable not having thick bandaging to deal with.
The surgeon removed 47 lymph nodes from my neck. Raise your hand if you knew it was possible to have that many nodes in such a small area? I didn’t. This is after having several removed in my last surgery and he even left one chain of nodes on my left side and cleared everything else out.
The swelling on my neck and chin was much more apparent and lasted much longer this time (I’m still slightly swollen), though I’m not surprised. He said some of the cancerous nodes he removed were imbedded in muscle in the thyroid bed. and after reading the surgical report and seeing some of the major maneuvering they did in my neck, I’m surprised my swelling was equivalent to my overall body weight. For example:
“After rolling neck contents into the internal jugular vein, a combination of sharp dissection using a 15-blade scalpel, as well as blunt dissection with a tonsil clamp and division with Bovie electrocautery, was performed to released the neck contents off of the internal jugular vein.”
GROSS (and kind of awesome). The first time I read “rolling neck contents,” I gagged a little. hah
My chin practically disappeared for more than a week. It was a beautiful day when my dad looked at me and said, “Hey, I can see your chin!”
My pain level this time around is also substantially more, as well as the area left numb. Last time, I was numb under my chin and around my neck and never gained back feeling. This time, I’m numb from down on my right shoulder up to slightly above my chin and my right ear is completely numb (I’m seriously considering getting a new piercing, since I can’t feel it!). At the same time, these areas also have bizarre sensitivity, where clothing and touching certain areas feels like pins and needles. Wearing shirts with a normal crew-neck collar is completely out of the question right now, and extremely uncomfortable.
When I came home for recovery, my pain level was high, but no medication was helping. Until yesterday, there was a constant dull pain in my shoulder and sharp pains that changed day-to-day. The dull pain has lessened, but sharp pains remain, especially when I have to take a deep breath–a sharp pain in the back of my neck shoots down my spine. I’ve tried the narcotics they gave me, with no success, and every kind of anti-inflammatory, to see if it stemmed muscularly but who knows. I saw my surgeon this morning, and while he doesn’t know why I’m having the pain I’m having, he’s not concerned. I’ve given up on medication, so I’m just waiting it out.
The good news is, I’ve lost 5 pounds.
Healing emotionally has been a bigger challenge this time around. After last surgery, I returned to letters/packages/cards from my friends all over the country–I felt so loved. I definitely feel supported this time around as well, but there have been many dark days as well, and days where I feel isolated. I am thankful my parents were able to be here for my surgery and that my dad extended his stay for a week to help me heal. If they weren’t here, the dark days would have been unbearable.
One thing I’ve learned over the last 8 months is how much harder this journey is the longer you’re on the road. The longer you’re dealing with the same issues, the less people ask and the more isolated it becomes. I have started to think about all of the people in my life who have been on similar journeys, and I wonder how many of them felt truly uplifted lately. I encourage you to do the same. If you know someone in your life who has been struggling with any kind of issue for a long time, while it may be old news to most people, it’s something they are dealing with every moment of every day. Reach out–Give a hug, send a card, shoot a text, show support, let them know they’re on your mind. It can make all the difference.
Lately when I lay in bed at night, all I can think about is how much I can feel God’s presence. For some reason, late at night in the quiet of my room, I feel closest to him. He’s tangible–real. I feel as though the worries on my heart are already in dialogue with the One who loves me more than I could ever comprehend. I often get overwhelmed, sometimes to the point of tears, knowing that He wants to walk this with me. I remind myself Jesus is enough… I don’t need anything else. I’m not sure this has ever resonated so strongly.
I start school May 29. It’s been a long time coming, and now it’s approaching fast. I was also offered a scholarship for housing downtown for a year. I signed the lease yesterday. Below will be my view starting this August: