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Double Digits

On January 2, 2008, a group of people wearing caps and masks watched someone of similar attire plunge a knife into my neck. But the people gathered around me meant me no harm—in fact, they were trying to do me some good, as I had, it turns out, not one but two cancerous nodules inside my thyroid, so a complete thyroidectomy was in fact in order. The second nodule I never really told anyone about until now (other than some doctors) because I didn’t want to acknowledge it myself at the time, as two nodules is more worrisome than one and while #1 was the least dangerous form of thyroid cancer (papillary) #2 was some sort of papillary/other cocktail that increased the cause for concern (plus I was nearing 50, which for males especially makes those mortality charts change in ways you don’t want them to), that’s the stone cold scary truth.

I had woken up in an operating room before that day, so I knew what to expect: arctic temperatures (they help you to wake up) and chattering docs + nurses (that also helps). This time, though, I came to in a dark room by myself, and everything was silent. All I knew for sure was that I was still in a hospital. I couldn’t hear any voices, and no one was passing by in the hallway in front of me. I could tell it was dark outside, which seemed weird considering that my surgery began early that morning (or was it that morning?). What little voice I had kept asking if anyone was there. Finally a sixty-ish nurse entered the room. She stared bluntly at me and said in a most serious voice:

“You know what happened, don’t you?”

“No, and you don’t have to tell me,” I said.

She told me anyway: I had stayed under so long that standard post-operating procedure had been abandoned. My parents had left the building, and the hospital was now a very quiet place. Later, in my hospital bed, with plenty of morphine to keep me company, I watched television during the awake/asleep cycle that kept repeating itself that evening. In the middle of the night the local news showed some footage that looked like a helicopter crashing into the hospital where the surgery had been performed, and in my altered state I quickly imagined a narrative wherein, as the surgeon was about to make the first and biggest cut, the entire building wobbled. While that wasn’t entirely accurate (and in fact, I came to learn, the accident that occurred was slightly less dramatic than what I first assumed and actually took place the day before my surgery), I have sometimes embellished this story in order to impress my friends with just how tough I am. Much to my disappointment, thus far everyone has read through that particular tall tale.

Again, the date of that surgery was January 2, 2008, which makes it ten years ago today, which takes us to double digit years of cancer-free living, and that’s a really nice number. After the thyroidectomy, four months passed before we ran the tests that determined if the cancer had spread beyond my thyroid (it hadn’t), but I will always mark January 2 as The Big Anniversary because that’s the date (as we eventually came to learn) that cancer left my body. Surgery is no no fun, but those four months that followed were the hard part, and I’ll freely admit that during that time I experienced some good old-fashioned fear. Not a crazy amount, but it was tough sometimes. Everyone who has cancer handles it differently, and I’m well aware, as I’m sure you are too, that some folks respond to a cancer diagnosis with a burst of good karma and positive energy and do a superb job of dodging the heebie-jeebies. That’s a perfectly fine approach, but it isn’t universal, and if these words should happen to reach a person who either has cancer or is being tested for it, I hope you know you shouldn’t second-guess yourself if that diagnosis sends a shiver down your spine. It’s okay to worry, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

On the other hand, when it comes to the regimen of tests involved when suspicions of cancer arise and the treatment that’s required, you need to follow through on all that. Maybe you’re not the Rock of Gibraltar, but you need to give other people permission to save your life. One of the fringe benefits you’ll experience along the way is a deepening of friendships and other relationships that can only happen when you undergo such trials. I can vouch for that, and today, as I began a list of the people whose support during that time is still fresh in my memory, it really hit home how lucky I was to have them in my life. Here my mind travels first to Dr. Timothy Freeman, the primary care physician who ordered the test that revealed something we weren’t even looking for (“Even a blind squirrel finds a nut sometimes” is how he put it); Dr. Fischer, the surgeon who performed the thyroidectomy, which included some intricate parathyroid work; Dr. Silberstein, the nuclear medicine specialist at UC Hospital; and my endocrinologist, Dr. Denny-Queen.

My mind also travels my brothers and sisters (and I’ve got lots of ‘em), and I should also mention my brother-in-law, Ed Holder, who I saw during that time and was always supportive. Molly and Jack Bredl were there for me, as was Mary Jo Wilson. Greg Bredl and Kristin LaCroix, both cancer survivors, helped boost my spirits. And Jim Schwartzhoff, now deceased, was a pillar of strength.

The list of friends who helped me keep my spirits up during this time included Luke Domet, Pam Sweet, Laura Kristal (thank you for the flowers), Vivian Vinyl, Bill King, and Tom Wendel. The comedy team of Maarten and Ashu, whose wild antics during that four-month period kept me laughing, also deserve a shout-out. Also, Jeff King, who is now deceased, was a bedrock of support during that period.

My mind also travels to people I knew at work, including, definitely, Sonja McLaughlin and Anita Clary. And how lucky I was to have as an “officemate” Asmaa Gharbi Alami, who offered support and prayed for me—and made me laugh, for that woman has a wicked sense of humor. It’s been too long since the two of us have conversed, but we are friends for life, and she knows it.

Looking back on that time, I’m especially grateful for my parents, John and Gary Wilson, who, along with providing emotional and practical support, endured many inconveniences while dealing with the post-surgical logistics (and weren’t bothered a bit by it). Many decades ago, in Des Moines, Iowa, a friend of our family surreptitiously placed in front of our house a huge roadside sign announcing that it was my mother’s birthday and that anyone driving past was invited in for donuts and coffee. That sign brought in many visitors who were previously strangers, and it provided lots of laughs. Anyone who knows my parents will tell you that the same welcoming spirit so prominently on display that day has always defined them. Lest there be any mystery, that’s how we all should live.