I'm a Single Mom Living With Cancer
Some days, I am a terrible mother.
"But it's only six o'clock mommy," Jack said in a whiney, albeit compassionate, voice. His big brown eyes searched my face.
"I know buddy," I said. "I'm not going to sleep, I just need to rest."
"Can't you rest out here while I do LEGOS?" he asked. "I'll shut the TV off, or you can watch your show."
"Mommy really needs to rest in her bed for a little," I said, feeling bad. At least we ate dinner, and the dishes were in the dishwasher.
"Okay," Jack said. "I'll watch Lucy for you." Lucy is our two-year-old golden retriever. We brought her home a few weeks before my surprise cancer diagnosis. I crate-trained her while navigating the Big C and chauffeuring Jack back and forth to summer camp. Lucy's been through the entire journey with me, so while I appreciated Jack's willingness to babysit, it was only a matter of minutes before she jumped up on my bed. She's extremely protective of me.
Jack woke me up at 8:30 p.m. I felt like the crappiest mom in the world. He's 8, not 2, so it's not like I have to worry about him bumping his head or swallowing something, but it's still a terrible feeling to wimp out on him. I made Jack a bedtime snack of carrot sticks, oatmeal raisin cookies, and milk. I chatted with him outside of the bathroom while he showered. I was wide-awake after that catnap; the mom-guilt seeped in more.
Facing the Big C
In the summer of 2014, I was diagnosed with a rare form of thyroid cancer called follicular variant of papillary carcinoma. Over two surgeries, I had a four-centimeter tumor and my entire thyroid gland removed. I did radiation therapy, and I'll take morning medication for life.
Pre-thyroid cancer, I was energetic, happy, and a solid 120 pounds. Now, I'm typically tired, weepy, depressed, and uncomfortable with my weight gain. This isn't every day. Some mornings, I wake up raring to go and feeling great! Others, it's me against my body for the next 24 hours.
Last Saturday was one of those days. Jack woke me up at 7 a.m. The sun was shining. I got up, took the dog out, poured Jack cereal, and fell back into my bed. "Mommy, please get up," he pleaded. It's awful to feel sick when you have a child who depends solely on you (his dad is not around at all). I slept until 10 a.m., chugged some coffee, and felt better. I took Jack to a birthday party and chatted with a mom friend who held her adorable baby girl. The baby upped my mood.
Mood—it's something the thyroid controls, along with metabolism and body temperature. The thyroid is like a battery that talks to every cell in your body, and mine is gone now, replaced by a little blue pill.
But Jack, while he's probably not aware, really helps me deal with the side effects of thyroid cancer. The thing about having a child—especially as a single mom—is that I have no choice but to get up every morning. Something tells me if I didn't have a little human to take care of, there would definitely be days I would hide under the covers.
Something tells me if I didn't have a little human to take care of, there would definitely be days I would hide under the covers.
I am so thankful to have Jack as my cheerleader. He's been a real trouper through everything the past two years. He never complains when I tote him along to blood lab appointments and offers to hold my hand "so it doesn't hurt so bad, Mommy." He's come to visit me in the hospital and even ducks in with me now to retrieve medical records.
But sometimes he can't tag along.
Recently, I was on the elliptical machine at the gym when I got the call from my endocrinologist's office that my routine ultrasound came back fishy. I remember stopping in my tracks as everyone around me continued to race. "They found something," the nurse practitioner said. I wiped the sweat from my forehead with my sleeve and listened as she explained I needed a fine needle biopsy to explore my lymph node. We hung up, and I stood still on the machine deciding what to do next.
I started peddling again. Jack and I have taken to singing, "Just keep swimming, just keep swimming," a line fromFinding Nemo, when things get hard.
While I live in southern New Jersey at the beach, my oncologist practices in the northern part of the state. So the night before my biopsy, Jack and Lucy were going to stay at my brother's home.
I packed Jack an overnight bag with his neatly folded school outfit, his basketball top, shorts, socks, and his iPad. I filled the majority of his lunchbox with snacks and water but left a note in it that said:ADD TURKEY CHEESE SANDWICH NO MAYO. And I texted my brother to make sure he added the sandwich.
The next morning, I white knuckled the steering wheel the entire two-hour ride to the hospital. In a tiny dim room, I changed into a hospital gown and slid onto the reclined chair. The ultrasound technician was chatty and nice. She told me I was too young for cancer — but luckily it's "good cancer."
I hear that phrase all the time. Thyroid cancer is pegged "good cancer" because most people don't die from it. There are approximately 62,000 new thyroid cancer cases per year in the United States and women account for 75% of them. But there are less than 2,000 deaths per year from thyroid cancer.
The radiologist came in and gave me a stinging local anesthetic in my neck. My hands rolled into tight fists. Next, he used five thin needles to extract cells from the lymph node. Staring up at the generic black dotted tile ceiling I thought about Jack at school. It was art day—his favorite subject. Afterwards, I took some Tylenol and left holding an ice pack against my neck.
I returned to the beach and picked up Jack. We promptly went out for cheeseburgers and talked about happy things like Mine Craft, the upcoming Little League season, and our sweet, silly dog. I changed the subject whenever he brought up cancer. He's still young enough to be easily distracted.
Being a Supermom
The waiting game is the worst.
A few days later the biopsy results were in and I don't need surgery—phew. But the oncologist put me on a low iodine diet which is basically eating a bunch of bland foods like quinoa, steamed veggies and grilled meats—no dairy, no salt. Basically, an 8-year-old's dream. But Jack is super supportive. One night he forfeited pizza delivery and had plain old lemon chicken, brown rice, and salad with me.
Next, a marathon of appointments starting with two days of 9 a.m. thyrogen injections at my doctor's office.The medication tests the blood for a hormone called thyroglobulin in follow-up patients, like me, with well differentiated thyroid cancer.Thyroglobulin levels can determine if thyroid cancer has reoccurred.
The following day I went for a pregnancy test at the lab (which I found hilariously ironic). The next step, when I report to nuclear medicine and ingest a small amount of radioactive iodine in pill form, is harmful for a fetus. I'll go in for a 50-minute scan after the radioactive iodine sinks in. It glows like Christmas lights anywhere there's cancer in my body.
Last year, a little light showed up in my chest, so I had to do radiation. That was a hard process for Jack because I had to isolate from him for four days because I was literally radioactive—like set off airport alarms radioactive. He had fun staying with my brother, but it was confusing.
That is, until I told him I had superhuman powers like the Hulk for four days.
Video: How to Fight Through the Worst of Times | Michael Crossland | Goalcast
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