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Cancer Would Not Win

In a battle of cancer vs. Sarah, Sarah wins!

I was getting ready for finals as a child development major at San Jose State University, and I had just turned 21 in March 1996. Nothing could stop me as I pursued my dream of someday becoming a teacher.

In early April that year, I ran into a friend, Grace, whom I hadn’t seen in awhile. As we were talking, I happened to turn my neck, and she noticed something odd on it. 

Right away, she mentioned it to me, saying that she had a friend who had some sort of growth on her neck and had just undergone treatment for it. Her friend just took some medicine and was all better. I didn’t think too much about what Grace said. After all, I was a busy 21 year old.

After a few weeks, I decided it would be worthwhile to go to the doctor just to see what he thought. I was shocked on my doctor’s visit when I was referred to a head and neck surgeon at Kaiser. Yes, there was a growth and it would need to be biopsied. I was told I would receive a phone call to schedule that appointment.

The next day, I did not receive a phone call and I was starting to worry. I didn’t sit around and wait. Instead, I called Kaiser and made my own appointment for the next day. This was the first time I realized I would need to become my own best advocate.

My mom and I went to see the surgeon, Dr. Boey, together. He stuck a needle in my neck and took a biopsy sample from my thyroid. Then, the two-week wait began for the results.

Those were not easy weeks for me because I was worried that I might have thyroid cancer. I began researching the disease and learned that if one could hope for a certain type of cancer, it would be thyroid cancer since it normally doesn’t spread. 

With my parents’ guidance, we decided that if my biopsy came back as cancerous, I would have my thyroid removed as a preventative. Better to be safe than sorry later in life.

Of course, these results came in during finals week, as I was taking 18 units of classes. They were “inconclusive." It might be cancer and it might not. 

My mom, dad and I decided that regardless, I had a lump on my neck that I wanted out of my body. We set a date for surgery — two days before Father’s Day 1996.

Honestly, I was petrified. I didn’t care if it was cancerous. What I worried most about was even waking up from the surgery. To me, that was the scariest part. I know that was also the hardest part for my parents.

The surgery would last an hour and a half to three hours. While Dr. Boey had me “under," he would do what is called a frozen section.  Basically, he would biopsy my thyroid while I was still under to determine whether it was cancer. If it was cancer, Dr. Boey knew our wishes to have the thyroid removed. 

It turned out to be a three-hour surgery — that meant cancer. The good news was that even though the growth ended up being the size of an egg, it had remained encapsulated in my thyroid on only one side of the gland. It had not spread to any lymph glands or nodes.

I remember lying in my hospital room being incredibly tired. The phone rang and woke me up. I hear my mom say, “Hello, Uncle Creighton” and “Yes, it was cancer.”

 That moment is ingrained in my head. It was the first time I heard conclusively that I had cancer. I followed this news by falling right back to sleep in my anesthesia-induced haze.

The summer of 1996 was challenging. I recovered from my surgery and began six weeks of waiting. I had to wait to undergo a full body scan to determine if any thyroid tissue was left. Since the thyroid controls metabolism, energy level and body temperature, I was told I would spend my days listless and exhausted.

That wouldn’t work for me, as I was set to take not one but two aerobics classes to fulfill my P.E. requirement at San Jose State before finishing my last year of college. I had step aerobics and body-sculpting classes for more than eight hours a week without any thyroid function — I didn’t have time to be tired and listless, as the nurse had said!

After the full-body scan in late July, I took a dose of radioactive iodine to kill off any residual thyroid tissue in my body, just in case minute cancerous tissue had spread. Finally, I could start taking thyroid supplement pills and feel “normal” again.

In the summer of 1997, I went off of my thyroid supplement for six weeks to have a second body scan. I really pushed for this — as my own best advocate I wanted to be sure I was cancer free.  Sure enough, I was given a clean bill of health.  That was my last body scan.

Life without my thyroid is just fine. I don’t miss it or even think about not having a thyroid. I don’t worry about the cancer coming back because thyroid cancer just doesn’t seem to do that. I am one of the lucky ones.

Yes, I will have to take thyroid supplement hormone my whole life, and it is constantly tweaked by my doctor to ensure I get the right dose. I am cold most of the time, too, but I can live with that. I had two “high-risk” pregnancies because of my thyroid condition. That just meant I got more sonograms than most women and got to "see" my unborn children more frequently — a bonus.

At 21, I could have taken a very different attitude about being diagnosed with cancer. 

Instead, I chose to not let it derail my plans. I returned to San Jose State in fall 1996 and took more units than I had ever taken. 

Now, I was even more motivated to graduate. In fact, I graduated cum laude from San Jose State University. 

Cancer would not win!

Penny June 20, 2011 at 04:32 PM
Good for you Sarah.. Being your own advocate is the way to go at Kaiser and everywhere really.. I am a Breast Cancer survivor, as were my Mom and Aunt as well. I also chose to have an Prophylactic Mastectomy on the other breast, as I did not want to wait for the "other shoe to fall", as they say.. Now, 25 yrs or so, later, I am healthy and glad I made that choice. Good decision from both of us..
Sarah Frank June 20, 2011 at 06:20 PM
Absolutely the best thing any patient or caregiver can do is advocate for aggressive care when called for! You are the only person who can speak up for yourself and those you love.

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