Country: Vietnam


This Side of Paradise

March 05, 2014

"And he could not tell why the struggle was worth while, why he had determined to use to the utmost himself and his heritage from the personalities he had passed...He stretched out his arms to the crystalline, radiant sky. 'I know myself,' he cried, 'but that is all.'" This Side of Paradise F. Scott Fitzgerald

I've been back in Long Xuyen exactly three weeks as of today, and, as of tomorrow, will officially have been cancer-free for one whole month. Not a bad first two months of 2014, even if we did get off to a rocky start.

I guess first I'll talk about the whole cancer thing.

It's over. So, that's cool.

I had absolutely no idea how much I had been consumed by it, how powerless and helpless and scared I had been, how completely out of control I had felt, until it was over. I was meeting a friend (well, my good friend's older sister, who I am friends with) when I got the call from my doctor's office. My doctor was on vacation, so one of the nurses with whom I had frantically spoken many times, got to deliver the good news.

"Hi, Elena? This is [name], from Dr. Turk's office."

"Oh, hi, yeah, um.....did my results come back?" I didn't want to ask. Every step of the way something had gone mildly not the way it could've in the best case scenario, and I was expecting nothing less from this step.

"They did...and you're going to Vietnam on Friday! Dr. Turk looked at the scans and said they showed the cancer hadn't metastasized, was entirely concentrated in where your thyroid used to be, and that the radio-iodine treatment looks like it worked. Congratulations!!"

"Oh my god. Really? Wow. WOW. WOW. THANKS. THANK YOU. Oh my god. WOW." I was floored. I suddenly felt like the invisible cage that had been crushing my spirit for the last 7 months was gone. My friend sat back down at our table, and asked if I'd heard my results. I was shaking, and started crying a little, and told her that I was fine. That I would, against everything I had expected, be going back to Vietnam. Even thinking about it now makes me tear up.

Just like that, in one phone call, I got my life back.

I had no idea how scared I had been. I think I cried a grand total of maybe 5 times out of self-pity, I joked about the whole situation and did everything in my power to ignore it (will it away!). My mom and I lol'ed our way through the nuclear medicine department visits, joked about the hilarity of telling non-English speaking government officials that I had not, in fact, been building atomic bombs, but merely been treated for thyroid cancer (I had to carry a travel letter explaining this, but, luckily, turns out NOBODY IN THE WHOLE WORLD is as paranoid as the states and thus NOBODY has radiation detectors anywhere. Besides us).


It wasn't until it was all over that I came to terms with the fact that I actually had had cancer, and that I was now healthy.

I realized I was going back to Vietnam, and I could go anywhere in the whole entire world without a return date, and that if I get tired, it's because I'm tired, not because my body is sabotaging me. If I gain weight, it's because I'm eating too much. If I am cold, it's because I need to put on more clothes. My pathetic, defective thyroid had been lurking in the background of my life, withering away under the influence of an autoimmune disease into a useless mass of tissue, the underlying cause of an myriad of health issues, doing things like suddenly dying a little bit and causing me to become crushingly depressed, suddenly developing a tumor (so maybe that wasn't sudden, and I just have a bad habit of ignoring medical problems) and causing me to gain 13 lbs in a month, wake up choking in the night and generally feel awful.

But now, my thyroid is gone. I am on the dose of thyroid medication I will be on for the rest of my life. I am in control. I have my life back. I cannot possibly convey the enormous relief and joy I felt a month and a day ago, but imagine waking up on Christmas when you were a little kid, and the realization that it was actually Christmas, that THE day had finally arrived. That is how I felt, and how I continue to feel a little bet every day. Because being alive is so incredibly amazing, and being healthy and in control of my being is a feeling I have not had in years.

I also think I've become on of those irritatingly happy people. Don't panic! I still love to complain, I'm still ruthlessly sarcastic and have retained my talents for crushing souls with a glare. But I would say, on the whole, my average emotion is significantly more positive than it has been in recent memory. It turns out, being happy is pretty awesome. Not waking up filled with dread for the day ahead of me, and not feeling the need to fabricate elaborate excuses to get out of the vast majority of activities but actually enjoying my daily activities and trying to say 'yes' more often has been a good change of pace. A big part of this is that I no longer live in a perpetual state of exhaustion. Even though the cancer stage of my thyroid saga was a blessedly brief 7 months, my thyroid problems were first diagnosed in the winter of my sophomore year of college (along with mono, two types of strep and a ferritin count of 2. LOL! college amirite), and since I didn't just have a slow thyroid, for which you take a single does of medicine and go about your merry life, but had an autoimmune disease that had somehow convinced my body to expend its energy not upon, like, normal bodily functions like having a proper immune system, but upon killing my thyroid. This meant I had to get regular blood tests and change my medicine and was always wondering "am I tired? or is my medicine off? did i gain weight because I hate exercise? or because my thyroid is less alive than it was two months ago?" It was obnoxious. I like being in control, and having this stupid, should-be-insignificant problem that made me feel out of control about my physical being was just the worst.

BUT NO LONGER. I AM THYROID FREE. There are some downsides, of course. Like, if I get kidnapped by Somali pirates and don't have my medicine, I will slip into a coma and die in about 8-12 weeks. This is not some hair-brained, panic induced fantasy. This is REAL LIFE. It was the basis of my endocrinologist's argument against removing my entire thyroid back in July (I kid you not) AND it kind of happened IRL. Remember that...some variety of pretty European girl who got kidnapped by Somali pirates? She had hypothyroidism, and, as she was not expecting to be kidnapped that day, did not have an endless supply of synthroid with her. She got sick and felt like shit AND was trying to deal with being kidnapped, a situation I cannot fathom in peak condition, let alone a hypothyroid fog. That doesn't really have anything to do with my life, but, just saying, these pills are important. I carry some in a nifty little container meant for the elderly in my purse, just in case I wind up sleeping in a cave or something. This is Vietnam, after all, anything could happen!

I'd meant to write about more than just this, but since this blog seems pretty longish I may just call it a day. Brief update on my life: I am teaching 5 classes (as opposed to last semester's 3) and they are brutally dull. Teaching speaking for an exam is like being an SAT tutor. You can try to make jokes about synonyms and finding the area of a cylinder, but at the end of the day, you are still teaching people who don't really care about really, really dull material. I teach pronunciation to freshman, and the book seems to think English is a math problem that can be solved by putting the emphasis on the right syllable/word based upon what type of sentence it is blah blah. News flash: English is a lawless language. For every 'rule' the book lists, there are about 500 exceptions. Super lame.

There are two (TWO!!!! well actually three, but I've yet to see the elusive Detlief <---must be German) new foreigners living in my building, meaning I now have 5 friends, up from 2 last semester. It's wild. One of them is an American PhD student who is rad and I want to be her. She ran a marathon in October and so we're attempting to be running buddies despite the high risk for being killed/developing worse asthma from the pollution. I'm half-considering the Angkor half-marathon in part of this whole new "yay I am alive and not ill" thing, I'm really into doing new things. Like yoga. I'm getting into it. Which goes against everything I have said in the last 6 years of my life, but I've accepted it. I'm a kale loving, blog writing, yoga doing, runner wannabe hypocrite and I am ok with that. I think this might be part of growing up. Saying yes to things you used to hate. We all did it with veggies (remember the horror of ingesting green beans? The tear-inducing quality of asparagus? I love that shit now) and so I think I might do that with grown up activities. Who knows. I have the REST OF MY LIFE to figure it out. And that is awesome.