Faith : Cancer made me stronger and persistent

In April of 2017, a short visit to the doctor changed Faith life forever.  He had begun to notice a small mass on the left side of his neck, but he didn’t think much of it at the time and initially dismissed it.  He only decided to get it checked out when prompted by my friends and family.

 Faith said “ I  conceded for their sakes, but I wasn’t worried; it was flu season, and besides, everyone in my family is in good health. I remained oblivious as I took sick leave from work, and I avoided them like I had the plague—I made my way to the hospital, which wasn’t so far from the stock-keeping company where I worked. The doctors poked and prodded, hunting for a diagnosis, scouring my body for information. The doctors decided to surgically remove my thyroid gland, and in June 2017, I underwent surgery and a biopsy. They then told me that I had papillary thyroid carcinoma, a type of cancer that affects the thyroid gland.

Upon learning about my condition, I was shocked. cancer had been the last thing on my mind. But my initial fears were put to ease by the doctor’s reassurances that this type of cancer is the most common and amongst the most curable and that my chances were fantastic. Despite my initial reactions, my mind was surprisingly clear and I worked with my doctor to draw up an elaborate plan to overcome my illness. I knew exactly what I had to do and was determined to beat cancer.

The next month, the doctors performed the surgical removal of my thyroid gland which was thoroughly colonized by cancer cells. The surgery was declared a success, but the doctors advised me to do high-dose radioactive iodine therapy, as opposed to the standard dosage. The higher dosage would almost guarantee that cancer wouldn’t come back, at least not for a while. However, it wasn’t offered here in Doha so I would have to travel to another country to receive the treatment. So in September of 2017, I had high-dose radioactive iodine treatment.

I was also given a lifelong prescription of thyroxine supplements and a tiny scar to remind myself of the victory. I was satisfied, ready to close that chapter and move on with my life. I could return to enjoying my time by video-calling my family and shopping with friends. I felt carefree again. Every three months, I had routine follow-up appointments. The doctor also gave me a regular follow-up appointment, and it was during one of these that they found a 6 mm mass that thankfully wasn’t cancerous. I had low-dose radioactive iodine therapy in June 2018 as part of my treatment.

As time went on I was no longer thinking of obscure masses on my neck or anything cancer-related. The routine follow-up appointments every three months and the regular follow-up with my doctor were the only reminders that I had even gone through that experience. Every visit felt like a small victory. Every time the doctor told me that there was no sign of cancer, I let out a small sigh of relief. As the months passed and I continued testing negative for any recurrence of cancer, the follow-up appointments began to feel redundant, and I felt confident that we had warded off cancer. So during a follow-up appointment in November of 2019, I failed to notice the unusually long ultrasound, the doctor’s careful manner, or the nurses’ sympathetic expressions. With an almost guilty expression on his face, the doctor informed me that he had found a new 3 mm mass in my lymph nodes, which was a new recurrence of cancer. Again, the medical staff tried to reassure me that this was a fairly common phenomenon, that 75% of patients with thyroid cancers exhibit metastasis to the lymph nodes. They advised me to complete another round of high-dose radioiodine therapy.

I felt sorry for myself. I had followed through with the plan and had done everything right. I had already beat cancer. How could it be back? I tried to trace my habits, searching for clues in my lifestyle. I needed answers, to find logic in my illness. I came up blank. I began to blame myself at this point. Not just for this complication but forgetting cancer in the first place. Was it an unhealthy diet? Was it bad luck? Or perhaps a neighbor’s evil eye? I felt responsible, convinced that if I had done something differently in my life then perhaps I could’ve prevented it. But the truth is that nobody can prevent or predict cancer. It took me a long while and a lot of heartaches before I realized this, but when I finally did, it became easier to modify my action plan and move onto the next phase of treatment.

I returned in February of 2020 for another round of high-dose radioactive iodine treatment. This would help eradicate the cancerous tissue that had migrated to my lymph nodes. As standard protocol, they had asked me to stop taking my thyroxine medication in the weeks leading up to the therapy so I was constantly fatigued and in pain. The pills they gave me for my symptoms only replaced my lethargy and pain with overwhelming nausea. My hormones were all up-and-down; some days I would be shivering while other days I would be sweating so much that I would have to take up to three showers. These were the most difficult times of my cancer journey. My life became bland and it had little to do with the low-salt diet that was prescribed to me. I had expected that the radioactive therapy would have felt agonizing like my insides were burning. But I don’t specifically recall that pain. Thinking back, I wonder where I drew the strength to endure a treatment that felt like being nuclear-bombed. I suspect that perhaps it was because I had no choice. I didn’t have time to dwell on the details of my discomfort as I just needed to be done with it so I could proceed to the next phase of the plan.

After the radioiodine therapy in February, I was in one-month isolation because the radiation that I was emitting would be harmful to anybody in my vicinity. Those few weeks where I was completely on my own reinforced my sense of alienation; my physical isolation reflected the mental isolation of my cancer diagnosis.  But there was light at the end of the tunnel. Soon after this period, my doctor gave me good news. I had cleared the last hurdle: I was once again cancer-free.

From then on, I was wary during my follow-up appointments. I was careful not to be overconfident about the status of my cancer this time, cognizant that my papillary cancer had already spread to my lymph nodes before and that it could happen again. Like clockwork, a couple of months later they found more cancer sprinkled in my lymph nodes. With every encounter, my cancer grew stronger and more persistent but I was unfazed; I was evolving alongside my cancer and felt prepared for it this time. No longer naïve, I was ready to attack the next course of treatment.

The treatment was the same radioactive iodine ablation therapy that was used against my cancer the last time. However, I was advised to seek a higher dosage, as opposed to the standard dosage that was previously administered. The higher dosage would almost guarantee that cancer wouldn’t come back, at least not for a while. A new battlefield, same old enemy. Where I had been supported financially and emotionally by the Qatar Cancer Society (QCS) in Doha, I would have to look for new solace wherever I decided to seek treatment. I decided to continue my treatments back home in Sri Lanka so that I could be surrounded by my family and friends; it seemed like a fair enough trade-off.

Before I left, QCS gave me a booklet called Story of Hope, which detailed the experiences of many cancer survivors. While reading through the stories, I was filled with the strangest feeling. Although the individuals in the stories were so different from me—their backgrounds, their types of cancers, and their individual experiences — I still found myself able to relate to bits and pieces of their journeys. Up until this point, I remained strong because I felt that I had no other choice. I simply had to go on. But reading through the stories in the booklet filled me with extraordinary hope, inspiration and helped me realize that there is no cookie-cutter cancer experience, the only rich variety that is unique to every patient. Finally, I was able to make sense of my experience and take control of my narrative. It was hard to constantly hear that I had the “good” or “easy” type of cancer because while I respect that many others have had more difficult journeys, it undermined the fact that my experience was far from good or easy. Cancer is still cancer. It was nowhere as straightforward as the doctors would tell me, as the websites would reassure me. I constantly had to modify my action plan; I had to be determined yet flexible, hopeful but not naïve. Reading the QCS booklet helped me realize that cancer is not the monolithic disease that the label suggests. Rather, it is a continuum experienced differently by every cancer patient. Suddenly, I felt liberated from any expectation of how this process was supposed to go and drew strength from the fact that cancer could be beaten even in all its different forms. I began to see the unpredictability of cancer as predictable and felt comforted that no matter how cancer presented itself, I would be able to overcome it. Now that I have finished my treatment, I hope that my story can similarly inspire other cancer patients who felt as lost as I did. I hope they can find clarity and see themselves in my story. But I would hope even more for them to be able to create their own story, on their terms.

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