I’m an Everygirl… and I had thyroid cancer at 23.

  • Copy By: Erin Sexson

It was my college graduation and I was surrounded by family and friends. We ate cake, drank fruity cocktails, and played bags in the backyard. My boyfriend was at my side and was greeting my family members like a champ. Little did I know, that just five days after my college graduation, I would have to call these very same people to tell them that I was diagnosed with Stage 2 Thyroid Cancer.

I know what you’re thinking. Did she just say college graduation and cancer in the same paragraph? I was 23 and seemingly in great health. Everything except that weird lump in my neck. After my classes ended, I had more time to spare, so I went to the doctor to have it looked at. He felt around on my neck and gave me a concerned look. I was then transferred to a specialist who ran some tests while I patiently awaited his phone call. I had a weird feeling that something was not right. I tried to occupy myself the best I could while waiting for the results. I had to actively plan every hour of my day or else I would sit and stew about the possibility of having cancer. I was headed to my sister’s house for some much needed girl time when I received the phone call that changed my life.

You really do change when you hear, “You have cancer.” I felt different after I received that first phone call and I still feel different to this day. I collapsed at the bottom of the stairs at my sister’s house and sobbed. She ran to me and just held me before even asking what was wrong. Pressed against my sister’s chest I said, “I have cancer.” Saying these words out loud for the first time was gut wrenching. The first few days were a complete blur. I felt numb. It felt as if someone had a Nintendo controller and the game was my life. I followed the doctors’ orders and did my research. Your life becomes consumed with thoughts of cancer after your diagnosis. This became overwhelming for me. I just wanted things to go back to normal when my only problem was finding a place with a decent happy hour.

This obsession with wanting to be normal affected my relationship with pretty much everyone. My cancer was always the topic of conversation, and when it wasn’t, it felt like the elephant in the room. Everyone had questions about how I found it, what was next, if I was going to lose my hair, etc. I always answered the questions politely but secretly wanted to scream on the inside. My friends had so many questions because they had never had a friend with cancer.

My journey began with surgery to remove the thyroid and lymph nodes nearby. This was my very first surgery and I had no idea what to expect. I was very visibly nervous and as I laid naked on the cold operating table, the doctor jokingly asked what I wanted to listen to during the surgery. I laughed so hard and was quickly knocked out by the anesthesiologist. After surgery, the doctor explained that the cancer had spread outside the thyroid and he had to “scoop out some muscle” that was affected. Because of this, the scar was larger than anticipated. The scar that was left behind caused emotional trauma for the first few months. My scar is 3-4 inches long and rests at the bottom of my neck.  I had the surgery during the summer so scarves in the Oklahoma heat were completely out of the question. I would have anxiety attacks after returning home from small outings because I felt so exposed. I specifically remember buying something in a clothing store, and the cashier kept looking down at my scar and giving me the awkward “I’m trying not to look” smile.

After surgery came the radioactive iodine treatment. This consisted of consuming a radioactive pill and isolating myself for five days. Let me tell you, nothing freaks you out more than ingesting radiation via pill form. The doctors took special measures not to touch the pill and I was supposed to swallow it? This totally freaked me out. But if it got rid of the cancer — what other choice did I have? I spent the next five days inside at my parents’ house in isolation watching Netflix and trying not to think about the fact that radiation was in my body.

I thought I was in the clear from that point. But a pet scan revealed the cancer was still hanging on and there was a small portion in my chest that lit up on the scan. The next step was external beam radiation. This treatment was the ultimate cherry on top that put me into a situational depression. The treatment consisted of daily radiation treatments that lasted for 30-45 minutes. I ended up receiving 33 external beam treatments. This treatment caused a serious burn on my neck that eventually blistered and exposed fresh skin. It was nasty and painful. The burn that was on the outside was also on the inside. This made it difficult to eat, sleep, and talk. While I was going through treatment, I was the saddest I have ever been. I was at yet another clothing store and experienced something that still haunts me to this day. I was purchasing a scarf, because I obviously needed to cover up that god awful burn, and the cashier thought I had been strangled. I left that store and cried in my car for an hour. During this time, I was incredibly lonely. My close friends and family noticed my reclusiveness but I refused to open up to them. I was trying to keep it together and was afraid that if I opened up I would crumble beyond repair. Looking back, this was my biggest mistake.

I was always going to be okay. My diagnosis was not terminal. And I was thankful for that. I never forgot that fact. But that doesn’t mean the diagnosis didn’t rock me to my core. I was different from the other cancer patients. I was told multiple times that Thyroid Cancer is the good cancer. People rarely die from Thyroid Cancer and are usually treated with with less invasive measures compared to other cancers. Let me be loud and clear when I say that there is no good cancer.

Everyone’s experience with cancer is uniquely different. Some people remain positive throughout their treatment and do not feel profoundly changed in the end. I was not that person. Having cancer made me feel sad and depressed and I would stop and say “You are throwing a pity party, Erin. There are people who are dying of cancer that are happier than you are. Suck it up.” This only made me feel guilty about being sad and the cycle of depression continued.

My family and friends were always there for me during my treatment. Some friends supported me from a distance, calling to check up on me. Some friends supported me more closely by picking up medication for me and taking me to get my nails done. All of the support I received was amazing, but there was really only one person who got me through the darkest times — me.

That is why I truly believe in myself as a survivor. I was inside my own head for months on top of months and I got to know myself. Sometimes I did not like what I saw in myself. At first, I felt damaged and gross for having this disease. And over time I began to be proud of myself for sticking it out even when the pain was too much. It was through cancer that I learned to love myself.

Looking back, I am not sure if I ever loved myself the way I do now. I love my body for making it through 33 radiation treatments. I love the scar on my neck that shows my battle. I love the way l love people. I love the way I empathize. I think before I speak because I truly understand the saying “you never know what someone is going through.”

I am still a girl that groans when my jeans are a little too tight. I still wince at the mirror in the morning when I see a pimple on my face or hair that just isn’t going to happen that day. I am still me. But being me became a lot easier when l let go of the pain and forgave myself.

Loving myself did not happen overnight. The first step in my healing process and finding my strength was forgiveness. I had to slowly begin to forgive myself for being sad. I had to forgive my body for developing cancer. I had to forgive loved ones for not knowing what to say or how to say it.

After forgiveness came acceptance and strength. I had to accept that my experience was unique to me and however I felt and whatever I said or did was okay. I started thinking about my loved ones and how I speak to them. I need to treat myself and talk to myself the same way I speak to loved ones. I would never allow anyone to speak to my friends the way I speak to myself. I needed to become my own friend. Loving myself and being at peace with who I am and what I have experienced has developed a strength in me that I never could have imagined. This strength is so important because there are daily reminders of my cancer journey. My alarm goes off every day at 6:20am to take my thyroid replacement medication. I have frequent blood tests and yearly scans. Cancer stories don’t end when you’re told you’re cancer free. It’s a lifelong battle.

My story would not be a genuine one if I did not also admit that I still get sad sometimes. Sometimes I will have a flashback and will feel my stomach sink. Or I will ask myself, “What if the cancer comes back?” But the difference between then and now is that I am able to comfort myself. I am able to tell myself, “What you went through was hard. It’s okay to be sad. It’s okay to worry about the cancer coming back.” And I actually believe myself.

My one wish for all women is to be comfortable with the person that they are, like I am now. My wish is that cancer is not the giver of this gift, but another kind of journey that brings them inner peace.

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