“My Voice” by Stacey Owens

Stacey Owens - 'Survivor'

Let me paint a picture for you:  You’re a 20-year-old college student.  You are just winding down an amazing summer, and getting ready to go back to school to start your junior year.  Getting all of your routine doctors appointments out of the way, before you have to jump on a plane to the east coast in 48 hours.

You go to your OB/GYN and expect the usual check up, with the usual results.  You are NORMAL and HEALTHY…NOT!  This check up was a little different.  Instead of palpating my neck and feeling nothing, my doctor felt a nodule.  If anybody knows the LA area at all, I was at an office at Cedar Sinai Hospital.  I was sent to have an ultrasound immediately.  After waiting for 2 hours for the ultra sound results, it came back “inconclusive”.  Thanks for the constructive feedback Cedars!

After sharing that information with my doctor, she brought me back in to her office to talk to me about a nuclear scan… routine, she assured me with regards to feeling nodules on the Thyroid.  Keep in mind, in less than 48 hours; I am supposed to be on a plane heading back to school.  Well of course, because of that, there was no time to conduct a radioactive scan here in LA.

So, as planned, I hopped on the plane and headed back to campus.  I of course had to find an endocrinologist in Western Massachusetts to conduct this scan.  So I did.  After I settled in to my dorm, I went to go see the doctor.  He of course did his own ultrasound, then drew some blood, did the nuclear scan, and then FINALLY a fine needle biopsy.  The biopsy happened just before Thanksgiving, and on a rare occasion, I went home (back to LA) for the break.

The day before Thanksgiving, as I was just driving home from my riding my horse, I got a phone call.  It was the doctor.  After the hi, how are you greetings of a phone call he says “Well… You have Papillary Carcinoma” Ok…. I thought to myself, “What does that mean” I asked.  “Well it means the cells we biopsied are malignant… it means you have Thyroid cancer.” HOLY S*#@! “Are you serious?!” I said.  “As serious as a heart attack” Clearly this guy has a sense of humor “The good thing is that if your going to have cancer, this is the one to have.  Its easy, and slow growing” “Oh well that’s a relief!” Are you serious doctor man?!  It’s the one to have… if I had a choice I wouldn’t choose any type of cancer… DUH!  Clearly this was a conversation that was going down in the books.

After the initial diagnosis, I immediately met with a doctor here in the LA area and started to meet with surgeons.  I of course was their youngest patient.  The thing was, my east coast doctor was right.  Thyroid cancer is pretty easy, considering the alternatives.  I picked a surgeon, and 3 weeks later on December 28th, 2005 I was in the OR.  During surgery, they checked for signs of malignancy in my lymph nodes, and of course there were cancerous cells present!  Just my luck!

My endocrinologist out here in LA doctor gave me an interesting factoid. Women typically begin to develop nodules on their Thyroid in their late 30’s early 40’s.  80% of women in the world have nodules on their Thyroid.  20% of that 80% have malignancies.  So then given these facts, why at the ripe old age of 20 was I part of that 20%?  What causes Thyroid Cancer?!  The answer I was given, was that in the 50’s and 60’s it was chalked up to an over exposure to radiation…. Ok so did I stand in front of the microwave too many times as a kid?!  Still to this day we don’t have an answer… Personally…. I think its all environment related… the s*#@ we pump in to the air, the s*#@ we spray on our food and then of course ingest… If you can think of a better answer, please let me know.

A week after my surgery, I was told I had to start a 6-week diet., before I could start my radiation.  No sodium, no iodine.  I was given the Thyroid Cancer Survivor’s Association website, and was told to look at the diet specifics.  In a nutshell I was allowed to eat certain veggies steamed and season-less, plain pasta with no sauce, 3 ounces of chicken every 2-3 weeks.  So for 6 weeks, I had plain pasta, and the occasional veggie and the occasional 3 ounces of chicken.  The upside to this diet?  You loose a TON of weight! We drew blood a week before my radiation to check my levels, and of course being the person I am, my levels were not high enough.  What does that mean?  2x a day shots in the ass of Thyrogen hormone!  YAY!

After the shots were complete, I was given my radiation, and locked in my hospital room for 48 hours.  The doctors who came in had radioactive suits on, and would shoot this little gun at me to see how “hot” I was.  Once the radiation level was low enough, I was released back in to the wild, only of course to have strict instructions to stay in my bedroom, and not let anyone touch me within the first 24 hours.  It was suggested that whatever clothing I was to wear within the next 48 hours, should be thrown out.  Eh… I chucked it in the washer and called it a day.  After all… a little radiation never hurt anybody… right?!  Keep in mind, I was still in school.  Lucky for me, instead of heading abroad for my spring semester, I had been accepted in to an internship program through BU that was conducted here in LA.

Six months later, we drew blood again, and of course… I had to do another round of radiation.  At this point I knew the routine.  6-week diet, shots in the ass, drinks the radiation and away we go!

The good new was, I finished my program with all A’s and was able to start my senior year with a relatively clean bill of health, minus of course the 6 month check ups.

Here we are in the present, 2010, 5 years after my diagnosis.  Its not only until now, am I realizing that I was really sick.  That I had to fight for my life, and my health.  I realized this after finding pictures of me from when I was sick.  I was pale, bloated and sick looking.  I didn’t loose my hair because you can’t do Chemo for Thyroid Cancer.  You will burn your throat.

So you ask… what does it mean to be a survivor?  It means I am a fighter.  Someone who does not lie down for anything.  Being a cancer survivor, at the age of 25 is part of who I am.  It does not define who I am, but it sets me apart from all the other 25-year-old girls all over the world.  I have stared death in the face, and told it to f#@* off.  The best part… I WON!

Being a part of the young adult survivor community has been an amazing experience.  I have met some incredible people who have become some of my closest friends.  I have become incredibly active with the I’m Too Young for This!  Cancer Foundation, and lend my “voice” to the world, helping to spread the word about the young adult survivor community to anyone and everyone I come in contact with.