Yep, I had cancer. AS far as cancers go, it’s the kind to get. In 1998, I was diagnosed with Bilateral Papillary Thyroid Cancer. Unfortunately, the road to that diagnosis was long and frightening.
It all started at Planned Parenthood. Seriously. Noel and I were moving from Hillsdale to Jackson and I had a new job and therefore new insurance. I hadn’t connected with a new doctor yet and needed a prescription refill, so I walked into the local Planned Parenthood office hoping to walk out with a Rx and be on my way.
Nope. “I’m sorry, Miss, but we must perform a full physical for new patients in order to write them a prescription.” Ugh. NO WOMAN wants to hear that she’s gotta get up in the stirrups, but I needed the Rx. So, there I was, in a cold exam room wearing nothing but glorified paper towels. In walks a VERY pregnant Nurse Practitioner, and let me just way that she was quick and merciful. No problems to report. But just to be “thorough”, she checks my glands and lymph nodes, as well as my ears, etc.
And damned if she doesn’t find a lump at the base of my throat. She asks me to swallow sips of water while she presses, HARD, on this lump and asks a LOT of questions.
“You need to see a doctor right away.”
“What? Why? Wait…what?”
“Get a doctor. Tell them that you have a lump on your thyroid and it needs to be checked out right away.”
I leave with my Rx, get it filled, and quickly file what she said to me in the “deny, ignore, forget about” mental lockbox.
Until she called me to follow up several days later.
“When are you going to see your new doctor?”
“Uhm, I don’t know.”
“Ok, who IS your new doctor? I’ll forward a copy of your file.”
“Uhm, I don’t know.”
“blah blah blah take this seriously… blah blah blah this is not a joke… blah blah blah be an adult. You could have a serious health problem.”
So, I called and got an appointment with a doctor that wasn’t impressed with my lump but would send me to a specialist if I insisted. But he really hopes I don’t plan on being a hypochondriac while under his care, because he doesn’t have time to hold my hand and make excuses for my overweight body. I need to eat less and move more, not just look for a magic pill. Thyroid problems are over-diagnosed as excuses for fat white women, who insist on a beer and pizza diet…
“Let’s just keep an eye on it,” he says.
“Uhm, ok, I guess.”
Two weeks later, the Nurse Practitioner from Planned Parenthood calls me again and I fill her in on the latest events. She is quiet for a moment and then, louder this time:
“TAKE THIS SERIOUSLY, THIS IS NOT A JOKE, YOU COULD HAVE A SERIOUS HEALTH PROBLEM!”
Louder still: “YOU ARE IN CHARGE OF YOUR BODY AND WELL-BEING. I AM TELLING YOU THAT THIS COULD BE SERIOUS. GET A BIOPSY!”
I go back to the doctor and finally get an appointment with this “specialist” who examines me for all of 3 minutes and decides that if I really want him to, he’ll do a biopsy of this “spec” in my throat, but he doesn’t think it’s necessary.
“Let’s just keep an eye on it…”
“Uhm, no. I’d like the unnecessary biopsy, please.”
He is clearly displeased and he takes it out on me by…
PERFORMING A FINE NEEDLE ASPIRATION (aka biopsy) WITHOUT THE BENEFIT OF LOCAL ANESTHESIA OR A PILLOW HOLDING MY HEAD STILL. He yells at me to stop moving as he digs his scoop ended needle into the base of my throat, multiple times. At one point he clamps a hand on my face to hold me still while he uses his other hand to keep twisting this syringe from hell. He complains that he drained it so much right away, he is having trouble finding it again to get more sample tissue. THAT’S how small this “lump” was to begin with…
I awake alone in the exam room. I am dizzy and sick, soaked in sweat, and I hear later I was also green. I slowly get up on legs like rubber, head pounding, open the door, and walk out to Noel in the waiting room. He is angry. I have been in there a very long time and no one would tell him anything. He got more concerned as it appeared several staff (some who he thought were with me) appeared to be heading out for lunch. We leave the doctors office and begin waiting for my results. But…
The “specialist” forgets to send in my biopsy sample. After two weeks of sitting in the refrigerator before analysis, the lab is only able to confirm that I don’t have skin cancer.
But he bills my insurance anyway (and me, of course). Months go by. I re-file the whole experience in my mental lockbox of denial.
And then my insurance company reaches out to me…
“We keep getting bills from Dr. K and there are problems with the documentation. Procedure codes, diagnosis codes, etc. don’t line up blah blah blah. We have asked for supplemental information, but not received anything. Before we pay him, we’d like to offer the opportunity to get a second opinion.”
“Uhm, what?” He had been sending me bills, too. Increasingly demanding bills. The latest showed up on bright yellow paper with red lettering.
“University of Michigan is the next closest practice with this specialty. Would you like to go there or blah, blah, blah…”
It takes a few more months for my appointment in the Otolaryngology Clinic at UofM to arrive. It’s a Monday in October, 1998. It’s a beautiful day and unseasonably warm. My appointment is relatively early in the day. Dr. Teknos is VERY concerned about the lump, especially since it is now about the size of a walnut, but doesn’t want me to be alarmed. Minutes later, I am completely numb from the tip of my chin down to the middle of my sternum. A nurse is sitting next to me, her only job to hold my hand and keep me calm. My head is resting in a special cradle, fully exposing my neck, and I am terrified. I feel cold and exposed. I tell my nurse I feel cold and exposed, and she swaddles me in a heated blanket, up as high as possible around my neck without being in the way of the procedure. I instantly feel a little safer and much calmer. The lights are dimmed and a doctor speaks to me quietly as he takes samples from my neck. Another nurse is there assisting him, but she moves smoothly and quietly. I am only slightly aware of what is happening, as my first nurse, Carol, is distracting me with questions about my dream vacation. Where would I go? Warm or cold destination? What would I want to do all day? What would be the most perfect room service meal ever?
When it’s over, I am handed a cup of pineapple juice over ice with a bendy straw. I am escorted into another room and my surgeon joins me a few minutes later. Noel is sitting in the corner chair, trying to read the USA Today he purchased on our way in hours earlier.
“Regardless of what your biopsy shows, I want that lump out of your neck. How’s Thursday sound to you?”
Later, I am put through the Health & Physical and cleared for Surgery. We learn that it is Papillary Thyroid Cancer. VERY treatable. 98% cure rate and the other 2% are not cured because they are found upon autopsy on the elderly and are NEVER the cause of death.
My neck is STILL numb when we climb into the car.
Thursday, October 22nd, I arrive for surgery. Things get a bit more complicated during the procedure as now the cancer has metastasized to my lymph nodes. They must be removed. But I am asleep so no big deal. After a couple days in the hospital, I head home and continue my recovery and rather challenging process of “getting my meds right.”
But what do I find when I get home?
The first specialist, Dr. K., has sent me to collections…you know, the one who assaulted me and then forgot to send in my cancer cells for identification? Yeah, him. Sent me to collections. Well, that story is for another time…
…but don’t worry, he never got a dime of MY money. Oh, no. Not one dime.