Early detection is key. Get a Neck Check.
Written by Jill Gurfinkel
One of the hardest things I have ever had to do was tell my young son that I had cancer. As a mom, my first inclination was to shield him from the ugly truth I struggled myself to accept. But my bright, beautiful boy had other plans.
At first, my son seemed satisfied with my vague explanation that I had something removed from my neck and had to take special medicine to make sure it never grew back. For the weeks that followed my surgeries leading up to radioactive iodine treatment (while I was bedridden from going through withdrawal from all thyroid hormones), Ben would just hop in bed with me, watch TV, and tell me about his day at school. He even helped me with my daily speech exercises while trying to rehabilitate my paralyzed vocal cord. Although I struggled to speak or drink without choking, we had plenty of laughs together at my expense, especially when I couldn’t say the word “England” for weeks without sounding like a seal.
When the radioactive iodine treatment forced me into isolation, my son understood that he could not see me at all for five days. I had hoped to at least be able to talk to him on the telephone while in isolation, but I was far too sick to even do that much. So by the time we were finally able to see each other, we both struggled with the fact that he had to maintain a safe distance from me as I was still radioactive and had to stand across the room from me. For Ben, this distance was even more confusing as he wanted to know when he could sit next to me again, and when hugs would be allowed. The sad look on his face is forever seared in my brain; he was just 7-years-old and wanted his mom. Not being able to comfort my son without exposing him to radiation absolutely gutted me.
It took everything I had to keep it together in front of my son. Not only was I protecting him from radiation, but also the truth that I was fighting to beat two forms of thyroid cancer. I actually thought I had pulled off a small miracle that he was actually satisfied with my simple explanations as to why all of this was happening. Little did I know, my sharp, observant child had actually been taking stock of everything. He noticed how family and friends came around more often, and saw how they greeted me after my surgeries and treatment. He noticed I was extremely tired, that I had days where simple things like getting dressed and taking him to school or going to work were overwhelming challenges. He also noticed my frequent trips to the doctor, and the countless pills and injections I had to take in order to feel better.
What I failed to appreciate at that time was that my son was particularly sensitive to my being sick as both of my parents died from cancer in their 60s. He never had an opportunity to meet them, and has grown up hearing stories of how amazing they were, and how they died too young.
So during one of our nightly conversations we have at bedtime, he finally asked me to tell him why our lives were turned upside down. At that moment, I panicked. I was petrified I would scar him for life if I told him that his mom had cancer at age 39. But he was ready to hear the truth.
I took a deep breath, miraculously without coughing (one of the many side effects from surgery). A reassuring tranquility washed over me as I realized my son needed to hear the truth. I told him that the reason I was sick and had gone through all that I did was because I had thyroid cancer. As soon as he heard the word “cancer” his eyes grew wider. He then asked me if I was going to die. We both fought back tears, and I calmly, but firmly reassured him that I was not going anywhere anytime soon, that I would be here for many more years to come. With a huge sigh of relief, he then asked, “Are you okay now?” and, once again, I responded truthfully. I said I was a work in progress. It was liberating. It was cathartic. I let my son in, right where he wanted to be. We talked a bit more about what a thyroid cancer diagnosis meant and how it could continue to impact our lives, but what I remember most is that we both held on to each other just a little bit more that night.
Since then, my son has been incredibly supportive and understanding on those days where I am anything but a super mom. Dealing with life without a thyroid means that sometimes I don’t have the strength to play, hang out, or do long tuck-in times. For us, tuck-in time can last a good hour because we have so much fun talking and laughing. It’s painful and frustrating for both of us when I have to cut that time short so I can rest. But because I told him the truth, he understands that my bad days have nothing to do with him. He understands when I need to rest, and somehow knows right when I need a hug. Looking back I realize now that sharing my battle with my son did not hurt him or make me weaker in his eyes. Rather, he saw me in a whole new light, as a survivor who was much stronger than I ever gave myself credit for. He saw his young mom get sick out of nowhere and fight with every ounce of her being to get her life back. He also saw his mom open up to him and admit when she could not be as strong as she once was. This made us closer on a level that I never anticipated sharing with my son at his age. Now 10, my son is my number one supporter! He cheers me on when I rally for other thyroid survivors, and applauded me when I launched the Thyroid Survivor Network with other thyroid disease survivors. So when asked if I regret telling him the truth, I can easily respond to that question with a resounding no. He deserved to know what was happening.
As parents, we shelter our kids from the painful truth of life at times, but the fact remains that they are going through this journey with us and can see right through the façade. Let them in. Let them be a part of the struggles and the victories. They will be stronger because of it, and so will you.