• robersonem

What do you mean I have cancer?


Picture of Emily after surgery
Yes, that is a scar on my neck, in this picture taken a week after surgery.

As the world emerges from our pandemic hibernation, we all have many reasons to be grateful for the scientists who developed the new vaccines against COVID-19, but I have my own special reason—I found out I had thyroid cancer during the Moderna vaccine trial.


At my first appointment, there was a physical exam to make sure I was healthy enough to take part. The APN checked my neck and lymph nodes.


“Interesting,” she said, then she asked another nurse to feel my neck. Then, she had me feel it myself. There was a strange squishy lump in the front, hidden on my throat.


“Huh,” I said, wondering why I hadn’t noticed it before.


“Not to scare you, but do you have cancer in your family?” she asked, her hand soft and chilly on my skin.


This was August 2020 — our strange pandemic summer — and I was in a small room in a medical tower of the hospital where my husband works, hoping that the staff would find me healthy enough to participate in a trial for a vaccine against COVID-19.


I wasn’t scared of having cancer. I was scared of getting COVID.


“Let me talk to the doctor,” she said, leaving me with the RN.


“I’m sure it’s fine,” the RN said, her tone reassuring.


“Yes, me too,” I said.


Because I was. Odds were that the lump was nothing to worry about. Much better than the odds that I would get a dose of the real experimental vaccine instead of the placebo.


What I was afraid of was being removed from this study and having a zero chance of getting the vaccine. And in August 2020, what I really wanted was the vaccine.


My husband is an anesthesiologist and a critical care doctor, and through last spring and summer, he treated COVID patients every day at work. He is religious about his protective equipment. He changed clothes in the garage. But he was still sleeping in our bed, still coming into our house. We knew doctors who lived separately from their families at the beginning of the pandemic, but we didn’t want to do that.


Which meant that we accepted the risk that he would get COVID, or that he would bring it to me.


We have three young sons. The paperback of LIFESTYLES OF GODS & MONSTERS was coming out in October. I had a packed schedule of events, literary and parental.

No time for me to be sick.


The APN came back: the doctor said that I was okay to start the trial. The nodule was likely nothing. Very common in women in their forties.


So I got a swab stuck up my nose, what felt like a gallon of blood taken from me, and a shot in my arm, which was maybe the vaccine and maybe a placebo.


And I promised to get my neck checked out.


At every stage—family doctor, ultrasound, radiology lab—everyone said that the nodule was probably nothing.


But they were all impressed with the story, and they all wanted me to know that I was brave for participating in the trial.


Fear was the underlying drumbeat of my life since January, when my husband first started seeing the news from critical care doctors across the world about this virus. When we heard about doctors and nurses in China and Italy, treating patients and dying of this thing. When we heard about new hospitals being built.


In the beginning, when my husband was storing his N95 in a paper lunch sack and reusing it. Me getting a shot in my arm didn’t feel very brave.


I went back for my next dose of vaccine. Everyone wanted to hear about my nodule. I told them it was biopsied, that everyone said it was probably fine. I got a swab up my nose, more blood taken, and another shot in my arm.


I waited.


Then on Friday afternoon, my family doctor called. He wanted to do a telemedicine visit. Now.

This was the first time I was scared. A Friday afternoon call from a doctor rarely means something good.


I had thyroid cancer.


Cancer.


“If you have to pick a cancer, this is the one to get,” the surgeon told us at the appointment the next week. But it was still cancer. Not on my 2020 Bingo Card.


And suddenly, I was getting surgery—for cancer. Then radiation treatment (a pill, not that bad)—for cancer.


All my plans—for on-line literary festivals, promotion for my paperback release, writing new books—became provisional.


For weeks, I barely had the energy to walk down the block, much less do any of the things that I had planned. I didn’t write any new books. I barely remember my on-line conferences and panels (I hope I did well!). Our friends brought us food and drove the kids to their activities.


But now, five months after surgery, I am fully recovered. I don’t have a thyroid anymore, so I have to take a daily dose of thyroid hormone, and I’ll get checked every six months for a cancer recurrence, but other than that, I’m back to myself. And when I went back for my unblinding appointment, I found out that I’d been vaccinated!


I’m looking forward to getting back into my writing life, but for now, I’m thankful for everyone who helped through this crazy year.

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