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The Month I Thought I Had Cancer

There is this post that I wanted to write. I had already composed part of it in my mind, and even started writing it last Monday while waiting for the "potentially historic" snowstorm to hit NYC. In my mind (and on this laptop), I was already bragging about my newfound "zen-ness", the fact that I did not care that three feet of snow was about to be dumped upon our city. I was not anxious about the travel ban, or the complete shutdown of the subway, or the fact that I waited in line for half an hour to buy a box of pasta and some hot cocoa. No, I was above all that. I was going to let this storm just roll off my back, so to speak. No refreshing No watching Di Blasio insist over and over again that this was going to be snow like we had never seen before. Not me. I was far too enlightened.

But none of that happened.

I do not mean the storm never happened, although that too was true. (It turned out that the so-called "Blizzard of 2015" was just as big a failure as my meditative bliss. We got a foot of snow here. But we got to go sledding, which was awesome!) I mean that some time around Monday afternoon, stuck in the house with not much to do, I went on Facebook. Which led to checking the weather report again. And then, while trying to watch regular Monday night television, there was Di Blasio once again warning us to not, under any circumstances, ever, GO OUTSIDE!!!! 

So yeah, I was a little tense. For nothing. Again.

But all that is besides the point. The reason I had been all excited to live and let live is because of the news I received Monday morning.

Here is the short version. Remember the itchy ears? The ones that prompted a visit to the ENT doc? My ears were fine. But that simple checkup resulted in a sonogram of my thyroid, which when the results finally came back, resulted in the discovery of a few "nodules", which the doctor said were most likely benign but I could do a biopsy on the larger one "just in case". Then the doctor went on a week long vacation. 

Seriously, he did. When he came back I went into his office where he proceeded to stick a long, thin needle into my neck. He sent it to a lab. I went to the dojo to teach kids class.

You know what's fascinating? That the rest of the world just keeps on going. While you are waiting for biopsy results, the rest of the world just keeps on being its normal damn self.   You  ride the subway. Walk the dog. Have sex. Teach karate. It doesn't make sense that all these people are commuting to work. Aren't they all waiting for a phone call too??

To be honest, there was some comfort in that. The doctor may or not call. Tumors will be malignant or benign or entirely inconclusive.  And meanwhile there will still be kids to teach karate to. And lunch to eat. And a daughter to care for. And a husband to love. And it is not so much that I must do these things but that I can. I do not have to just sit there and wait for my phone to ring.

The doctor said he would call on Friday. But he didn't. So I waited at the dojo. Occasionally I would call Matthew to tell him something completely unrelated to cancer, and I would start the conversation with "He didn't call yet. Do you know where the laundry detergent is?" "He didn't call yet. Do you want the other half of my tuna melt."

I wanted to be all "whatever happens, happens." But I wasn't. It was a looooong day. When I was finally done teaching my classes, I called the doctor's office but he had already left for the day. 

I suppose I should pause this dramatic story to tell you that thyroid cancer is both very rare, and very treatable. It is slow to progress, rarely spreads, and can usually be "cured" just by removing part or all of the thyroid. I actually know a couple of people who have no thyroids. You take medicine for the rest of your life. I am not trying to belittle what they went through, I am sure it was still pretty awful. It is still cancer. It is still surgery. There are risks. Sometimes it takes a long time to get the medicine levels right. All I am saying is that if you absolutely have to have cancer, thyroid is one of the better ones to have. 

On Sunday night, while everyone else was planning their snow days, I was thinking. "Oh crap. My ENT doc is 75 years old (literally). There is no way he is going to come to work if we get 30 inches of snow. He may stay home all week just to be safe! And I do not have his home number!"

When you are waiting to find out if you have cancer, it helps to keep a sense of humor. Matthew and I had a running series of jokes that involved the most insensitive way the doctor could break the news. They included things like "Good news Jennifer. You do not need to take any more tests. You have CANCER!" and "Raise your hand if you do not have cancer....not so fast, Jennifer."

You get the point.

I called his office around 9:30 Monday morning. Our conversation went like this. 
Him: "Good news. Your nodule thing is a benign gobbledygook-medical term-something goiter." Me: "Um can you just say NOT CANCER?" 

The doctor recommended I have my "not cancer" checked periodically to make sure it is not growing, impacting my thyroid levels, or being otherwise annoying. Sometimes these things go away, sometimes they stay the same, and sometimes they poke at you in uncomfortable ways and have to eventually be removed. 

Whatever, I am off to jiu-jitsu. Life affirming jiu-jitsu, where someone can grab me, toss me around and wrap my gi around my...thyroid. Hmm.... 

Fuckit, its not cancerous! Choke away!

Last month, somewhere between the sonogram and the biopsy, I took my daughter to Madison Square Garden to see the Fresh Beat Band in concert. Most of the adults looked as if they were barely holding on to their sanity, but every few rows there was a mom bobbing her head as if she were reliving her NKOTB youth. And three rows in front of us was superdad. Superdad had two young daughters and he was dancing with them as if he were tying to win a million dollars. And smiling. And laughing. And clearly having the time of his life.

I loved that concert. I danced with my little girl and sang along to Marina and Kiki and Twist and Shout (not only do I know their names but I know ALL the lyrics) and at one point even got a little choked up. (To be fair the song was "This little light of mine". Who can stay dry eyed listening to children singing about letting their light shine??) Maya is seven. There are only so many more years where she will actually want to go to a concert with her mother. And while looking around the theater at all those families I realized that I was really, really happy to be a mommy.

I know all the cliches. Life is short. You never know when your time will be up. You never know what surprise is going to come around the corner. So we gotta enjoy the moments. Not sweat the small things. Let go of those things we cannot control.

For one hour on that Saturday evening, I managed to do just that. 
And then the "blizzard" came.

Don't get me wrong, I am incredibly, thoroughly, one hundred percent thankful to not have cancer. I could not be happier. Other people are not so lucky. But I guess I expected to wake up transformed. To no longer care if the subway stops between stations or the car gets stuck in traffic. To not care if we get 6 inches of snow or two feet. To be happy in my warm apartment, on my cozy couch with my wonderful family and to never ever worry about stupid minor things again.

Hence my smug "I don't care about you Di Blasio" blog post. The one that never happened because it turned out that actually I was a little worried about the travel ban. Because it turned out that even with completely benign test results I was still just me.

I am sure there are plenty of people who have moments in life that truly and magically change how they see the world. The rest of us, we actually have to work at it. 

So what did I learn from the month I thought I had cancer? That being in the moment requires actually being in the moment. That if you want to stop obsessively Googling medical facts you have to actually put your phone away. That yes it is true that life will throw you curveballs, things that you cannot prepare for and cannot control. And yes, you will get through them. But if you want to actually enjoy the time when things are good you have to make a conscious choice to do so. It takes work. 

Or at least it does for me. I have to treat mindfulness the same way I treat rear naked chokes. I have to train at it. 

But that's ok. I am good at training.

By the way, we are expecting more snow here in NYC. I do not know how much. I didn't check the weather reports.

Ok, I lied. I checked. Once. I checked once. But only so I could know what to wear to jiu-jitsu tomorrow. 


  1. Have had similar experience thanks to an HMO doctor who was boys' crazy.
    you need to call your nodule "mAdam's apple"

  2. Big hugs! Glad you're okay. I once had a huge scare - I got a false positive on an HIV test when I was 21. It was one of the worst/scariest weeks of my life, waiting for the retest to be done. Thankfully, no HIV, and I've consistently tested negative every damn time after. Still - so freaking scary.

    In any case, HOORAY! Not-cancer!!

    1. Just saw your reply:)
      I found 2 articles stating that:
      a) if benign nodule bothers you, some doctors are injecting the ethanol into a nodule (PEI) causing it to shrink
      b) a new imaging method called shear wave ultrasound helps to avoid biopsy in many cases
      And as you stated you should avoid mechanical impacts or strains to the thyroid area (such a choke hold), as in some cases it causes bleeding within the nodule.


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