Courtney is a two-time cancer survivor, recently celebrating her third year cancer free and 18th year of survivorship. By day, she manages the CRM strategy of a large financial institution in Chicago. By night, she dabbles in improv and is working on her yoga inversions. Courtney’s not-so-secret wish is to be the fifth Golden Girl.
I have had cancer twice in my life. The first, I was 22 with uterine cancer. The second time, I was 37 with thyroid cancer. There are many stories I could share about being a 22-year-old college student diagnosed with an “old lady disease,” like explaining menopause symptoms to a date or the brain fog fun from five years of hormone replacement therapy, but instead I’d like to share my favorite story from my total thyroidectomy. This is the story of the moment I knew I was going to be okay.
My body does not respond well to surgery. Wisdom teeth removed freshmen year of college – infection. Hysterectomy due to uterine cancer – severe kidney infection resulting in five extra days in the hospital, including time spent in isolation. When undergoing the total thyroidectomy, I was pumped full of antibiotics to get ahead of any lurking infection.
Instead, the nerve along the right side of my neck completely freaked out when the surgeon got near it and stopped working. I came out of my anesthesia slumber to a circle of people in masks staring down on me, urging me to breathe and speak, not having any idea what was going on. I could not see, my parents had my glasses and they must have been the only people not allowed to surround me.
Once I was a bit more coherent, I was told about my right vocal cord paralysis and what exactly that meant. Did you know your vocal cords play an active role in breathing? If you did, you’re way smarter than me! I only thought they were for talking or singing! Since my right vocal cord was not working, I was not able to sufficiently inhale or exhale. And since I could not do that, I could not talk louder than an inaudible whisper. It also meant I could not swallow so was a choke risk.
My calcium levels dropped to dangerous levels and the doctors were concerned I would go into cardiac arrest or suffocate. Told you my body does not respond well to surgery! I was admitted to the ICU with a night nurse at my bedside. The doctor informed me he stationed
both a trach cart and crash cart right outside my room and if something happened and either were needed he would be by my side in less than a minute. “Well aren’t you a little ray of sunshine?” I whispered. And made myself laugh. A weak, pathetic, excruciatingly painful laugh, but still a laugh. My squeak of a sound made my nurse laugh a good hearty laugh for the both of us. The doctor did not see the humor and the nurse later told me he rolled his eyes when he left my room. (I still didn’t have my glasses!).
When I laughed at myself, I knew I was going to be okay. Things were still funny. In that moment of darkness, I still made myself giggle. It took a solid year to recover from the various complications, but I as long as I kept laughing, being present in the moment, I knew I was okay.