“Thyroid nodules (lumps) are very common, and therefore it’s likely that one day you may need to have your thyroid biopsied to rule out cancer. The good news is 95% of thyroid nodules are benign (meaning not cancerous). So go ahead and have the biopsy because odds are it’s just a lump. Of course in my case it was cancer, but for me, knowing I had cancer was much better than the years of not knowing why I was so sick.”
My cancer diagnosis has prompted me to reflect on my life, and I’ve started seeing connections and meaning in events that would otherwise pass through time without a second thought. Like when I got a tattoo of a mermaid on impulse. Something like that could’ve been a mistake, but instead it was a blessing. I love it. And when I was diagnosed with cancer only a few months later it became a cherished symbol that continues to bring me comfort throughout my treatments and recovery. So let’s compare…the biopsy needle vs. the tattoo needle.
The Biopsy Needle
A thyroid cancer biopsy is called Fine Needle Aspiration (FNA) which is a procedure where a needle, much smaller than those used to draw blood, is carefully placed into the suspicious looking nodule in your neck. The needle has a syringe at the other end, used to suck your cells up into it. Then the cells are smeared on a glass slide, stained, and sent to a lab to be viewed under a microscope by a specialist who is trained to identify cancer cells. In addition to determining whether the nodule is benign or cancerous. FNA is important because if your cells are cancerous, looking at them under the microscope can determine the type of thyroid cancer you have (i.e. papillary, follicular, or medullary) and therefor informs the best course of treatment.
It sounds painful and terrible right? Trust me, it’s not. The worst part is the fear that you might have cancer, and you’re about to find out for sure. I knew I had cancer despite the statistics. Thyroid nodules are fairly common, and 95% of cases with a single thyroid nodule are benign (meaning not cancerous). But my neck was filled with nodules, so I kinda knew those statistics didn’t apply to my case, and bad news was on the horizon.
My doctor knows what’s up and she did my biopsies right!
And here’s why – she didn’t make me wait. Waiting for cancer test results is an anxiety-filled-hell on par with any of the rings in Dante’s Inferno. My doctor saw me on December 8th, did a neck ultrasound, and brought me back in the very next day for my biopsies. Plus, she has a lab tech in her office, so I got my results right away – within 5 minutes. This is how it should be done, so the patient isn’t left waiting in purgatory for test results.
Here’s how it went down. I kept my clothes on and laid down on the examining table. She put a pillow under my shoulders so that my head was bent back and my neck was fully extended. She numbed my neck with an injection because she was going to take at least 3 biopsies and wanted to spare me the pain. Some doctors don’t numb the area, because why stick you with a needle only to stick you with a smaller needle, but I was happy to be numbed, especially since I was about to have several biopsies. She used the ultrasound wand to find the nodules and inject the needles into them. She biopsied the large nodule on my thyroid, and two additional nodules on either side of my neck to see if the ones in my lymph nodes were cancerous.
Then she left me in the dark room to wait while she took my samples next door so that the lab tech could examine my cells under the microscope. As I lay there waiting for the results I thought about my tattoo. I thought about how my biopsies didn’t hurt at all compared to my tattoo, and that was a blessing. Plus, I thought about the wise and comforting words of my tattoo artist, words that give me strength to this day.
Five minutes later the results were in, I had papillary thyroid cancer that had spread throughout my neck, and I needed surgery right away.
The Tattoo Needle
Back in August, I went to Seattle for work and stayed over on the weekend to see my best friend Mackenzie who had just move there. Mac and I met back in 8th grade, and for me it was love at first sight! Some people are brilliant and unique and meant to be in your life. So when we realized that it was our 20-year friendship anniversary, it was only logical to get tattoos to celebrate. Normally I am a planner, so a spontaneous tattoo is totally unlike me, but I was feeling impulsive. We googled a nearby tattoo parlor and 15 minutes later we were picking out designs.
I thought we would both get tiny, girly, matching tattoos, but that didn’t happen because we are very different women. So instead of matching, we went with a water theme. Mac loves the rain and so she got a rain cloud tattoo. It took 20 minutes. I, on the other hand, love the sun and beach. So I decided to get a full color mermaid tattoo on my right hip, complete with waves and a sunset. It took 5 hours.
My tattoo artist knows what’s up, and he did my tattoo right.
I showed him a picture of the mermaid that I wanted and after looking it over he said, “This mermaid is sad, she is bent over with her head down. I don’t want to give you this tattoo. It doesn’t fit you. I can tell you are a confident, positive, strong woman. I suggest a tattoo of a mermaid with her head up, with a strong silhouette. Although the waves are crashing around her, she, like you, remains strong and happy despite the storm.” I loved that. And I’ve been reminded of his words throughout my cancer treatment. It’s the mantra that’s helped me through the roughest times. And I have his art on my body to remind me of my strength. I don’t know how he could see me so clearly so quickly, but I was fully on board with his analysis and the tattoo design he was prescribing.
I wanted the mermaid to be tiny on my hip, and again my artist pushed back for good reason. “If we make the tattoo too small, overtime the ink will bleed and that will deform her face and other features.” I didn’t want a messed up ugly mermaid, so I let him put a huge tattoo on my body that stretched from the bottom of my rib cage down to the top of my thigh.
That’s why it took 5 hours to complete, and to be honest, it hurt. Mac says I was brave the whole time, but dude, I was faking it! I was scared I wouldn’t make it through. I was flying home the next morning and I didn’t want half a tattoo. The pain had nothing to do with the artist’s skills. It just is what it is. First, he did the full outline, with lots of details. Then he went back over it with shading. Then he went over it again with color. Every time he added more details, it was like poking a wound, and then poking it again. But Mackenzie held my hands (both hands) the entire time. And we talked and laughed while new art was born on my skin.
And this is typical Jane. I like adventure, I like to push myself and see what I can handle. I’ve jumped off a mountain in Switzerland with a parachute despite my fear of heights, I’ve hitch hiked through New Zealand despite the obvious risks, and I wanted to see if I could handle a 5-hour tattoo session, and I totally rocked it.
Everything Happens for a Reason
My biopsy didn’t hurt at all in comparison to my tattoo. And later, after surgery when I had blood draws every 4 hours for three days straight, those hurt, but I knew I could get through them because I pushed through my tattoo and ended up with a beautiful and meaningful piece of art.
I will push through this cancer, and all the uncomfortable tests and treatments, and when it’s over I will end up with a beautiful meaningful life. I, like my mermaid, am strong and confident, and whenever the waves of cancer crash against me, I keep my chin up, and refuse to let them pull me under.
Everything happens for a reason. Or perhaps I just feel that way because finding connections, in what otherwise seem to be totally unrelated events, brings magical mystery and comfort to life. All life is uncertain, but to me, it’s a lot more fun with magic and mermaids.
For more information about Fine Needle Aspiration (FNA) see: http://www.thyca.org/newly-diagnosed/fna/
For more information about thyroid nodules see: http://www.endocrineweb.com/conditions/thyroid/thyroid-nodules
For thyroid cancer statistics see: http://www.cancer.net/cancer-types/thyroid-cancer/statistics