The smell of antiseptic nearly overwhelms the flutter of panic I feel in my stomach. I clench my fists and squeeze my eyelids shut as I wait for the needle to penetrate my neck. The next step is to wait for the results. Wishing the phone would never ring, I sit nervously hoping the call does not change my life forever. The one word coming out of the doctor’s mouth is simply impossible to fathom: cancerous. I sit, speechless, unable to move any part of my body. I feel the sweat running down my hot forehead, but I continue to let it drip down the side of my face. It’s as if my mother is an adult character from Charlie Brown because all I hear leaving her mouth is “blah blah blah blah blah,” not only because my ears stop working, but also because my mother can barely find the breath to repeat the tragic words that the doctor just shared with her. She eventually tells me that the tumor protruding from my neck is cancerous and needs to be surgically removed. Absolutely petrified, I try not to think of being under anesthesia and my neck being cut open. I close my eyes hoping that when I open them this nightmare will have vanished.
The home phone rings. My family hardly gets a call on the home, so rarely that I’m not even sure why we still have it, but when it does ring, I almost always know who the caller is. This ring becomes unpleasant, a disturbing noise that gives me goose bumps every time I hear it. I’m too afraid to read the caller ID, so I hand the phone directly to my mom. My throat is too sore from surgery to talk anyways. I will never forget my mother’s facial expression during this phone call. I see her eyes beginning to water. She hangs up the phone and explains that the cancer has spread to surrounding lymph nodes and my thyroid: thyroid cancer. It was crucial to perform a thyroglossal sistrunk procedure. This procedure consists of removing part of my thyroid, cancerous lymph nodes, a bone in my neck, and dissecting the rest of my neck and throat to remove anything that appears to be suspicious or out of the ordinary.
This was all happening so fast that I couldn’t share the reality of my illness with anyone outside of my family and boyfriend. I continue to go through the motions of doctor appointments, blood work, labs, ultrasounds, vocal cord checks, MRI’s, diets, radiation, and surgeries, but I refuse to tell any friends or peers why I was missing weeks of school and soccer at a time. School and soccer are the two places I could feel like nothing out of the ordinary was going on in my life. I keep this up for roughly two years. I dance around the subject of where my scars actually came from and why I need to undergo, yet another, surgery. I never lie to my friends, but I also never used the “C” word. I have never been ashamed of my illness, but pity is the last thing that I want in my life. I don’t want anyone feeling bad for me because, frankly, I don’t even feel bad for myself. Sure, I am, without a doubt, terrified of what the future holds for me, but deep down there was never a time when I thought that everything wasn’t eventually going to be okay in the end.
I arrive at Lurie Children’s Hospital June 20, 2013, around 7 a.m. I step into the elevator and press level four. A little girl around the age of seven stands next to me in the elevator. I glance at the fresh scar on her bald, precious little head. I glimpse at the girl’s flowered headband and pink dress. She smiles at me, and at this exact moment, my heart skips a beat. I’m suddenly not afraid anymore. I realize that having thyroid cancer is just a bump in my road to success. This cancer makes me stronger than ever before and willing to fight any battle that comes my way. This one little act of courage instantly changes my perspective of my illness and life. I return a soft smile to the little girl in the pink dress. She walks out of the elevator, looks back, and gives a little wave right as the two doors seal together. Her image of courage reminds me that I, too, can meet my future with a smile.
Throughout my fourth and final surgery and radiation treatment, I had the biggest support system I could have ever imagined. The little girl in the elevator inspired me to wear my scars loud and proud and to raise awareness for my illness. I began wearing a Thyroid Cancer wristband that read “No One Fights Alone.” Before I knew it, everyone I knew asked me for a wristband of their own. By the end of my senior year, I must have passed out hundreds of wristbands that were worn by the people who cared about me. My entire soccer team wore a band around one of their cleats during every practice and game we played in. February of my senior year there was an entire article released in the local paper that read “Geneva’s Serra Beats Cancer On Way to D1 Soccer.” Although being under the spotlight is not my favorite place to be, I was more than proud to share my battle with a reporter even though I was not used to talking about my illness publicly. My senior year I also took the initiative of organizing a fundraiser where I raised over two thousand dollars that I then donated back to Lurie Children’s Hospital for further cancer research.
On April 7, 2014, I was officially cleared as cancer free. Since this day, I have continued to raise awareness and fundraise for pediatric and thyroid cancer. I am currently involved in Alex’s Million Mile fundraiser. I am running every day of September to raise funds and reach my personal goal of 30 miles, while also contributing to Alex’s goal of 1 million miles!
Since my diagnosis, I have grown so much as an individual and am so grateful for every healthy day that I am given. Fighting this illness at such a young age changed my perception of the world and my overall character. I would never be who I am today without my two year battle. It is a part of who I am. My story and fading scars are what shape my identity. I truly believe that God placed this illness upon me because he knew that I could handle it. God knew that after I let the thought of having cancer sink in, I would use my story to educate the people around me. I was put on this Earth to inspire. I am forever grateful for the little girl in the pink dress and flower bow in the elevator at Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago. I will always be a fighter.