by Melissa D. Johnston
“It’s a giant, juicy, pink worm tied down by Lilliputians.” This was the answer to my friends, post-surgery, of what my scar looked like. To my parents it appeared that my neck had been clotheslined—not metaphorically, but with actual clothesline wire. This belief persisted long after the stitches came out and persists to this day, echoed in the surreptitious glances of strangers who may or may not wonder if I’d once had a particularly unfortunate day playing Red Rover.
In reality, the pink worm was born as the result of a partial thyroidectomy, a procedure in which a surgeon and his team removed part of my thyroid through a 2 ½ inch horizontal incision in order to whisk away a microcarcinoma (a nice, mellifluous word for a small thyroid cancer) and banish it, after much study, into the biohazard waste basket.
And so they did, and now my worm has advanced to middle-aged skin at the height of a dry winter, where moisture must regularly be applied to keep that plump, pink, youthful appearance. The rumor is that he’ll disintegrate to a ripe, flat old age and then into a grave marked by a bright, thin, barely-there line—where I’ll have to be the one to point him out if I want others to make his post mortem acquaintance. That’s the story according to my surgeon, anyway.
I still have a special fondness for his preteen years, though. The awkward stage where he still struggled with wire braces, the stitches that had to set while he lay inflamed but protected by daily swabs of hydrogen peroxide and generous amounts of petroleum jelly. A time when I made my first public appearance after surgery and couldn’t cover his raw body with a scarf because it was still too sensitive—no small deal since I’d known others with thyroidectomies who’d been asked, in all seriousness, “Did you try to slit your throat?” I didn’t fancy appearing extremely qualified as a candidate for Remedial Suicide Methods 101.
Most folks in the southern U.S. are polite. If they did think I qualified for Remedial Methods, I never knew it. That first day out, in fact, I got plenty of furtive glances, but only one direct stare, from a man whose wife tapped his arm and said, “Honey, Honey—Look!” When I turned my head, she immediately averted her eyes but her husband continued to stare until I wondered whether I’d lost a standoff when I looked away.
One person that day hadn’t seemed to notice at all. She took my order at one of my favorite local New York style delis and looked directly into my eyes, as she seemed to do with all the customers. It was only when I was getting my soft drink that she came over and said, “Do you mind my asking—what surgery did you just have?”
“I had a thyroidectomy.”
“What was it for?”
“I had thyroid cancer.”
“Oh.” She looked down and paused for a second. “I could tell it was fresh…” She finally looked back up and into my eyes. “My son was just diagnosed with leukemia.”
We talked for the next several minutes about her son, cancer, and how crazy life can be with kids. We talked about what we both had been through in the past couple of months and how the cancer diagnoses had affected our families. I walked out of the shop feeling support from someone who one hour before had been a total stranger. I hope she felt the same.
That conversation changed how I viewed my scar. These two digital pieces, which are chronicles of my wrestling with what thyroid cancer means for me, feature my preteen worm in all his pinked, stitched glory.
** 11/19/12 Update: Alas, my worm never made it to old age. He was whipped out mid-life during a second surgery, where the surgeons, due to finding cancer in my lymph nodes, needed to complete the thyroidectomy and perform a central compartment neck dissection. New skin puckers where he’d been, forming glued bumpy borders I’ve yet to explore…**
**7/27/14 Update: My worm rode the wheel of life one more time. As much as he loves me and I him, we both hope it’s his last incarnation. After a third surgery and radiation, I’m hoping to get the all-clear (and it looks good!) to be able to say that I’m a one-year cancer survivor. I’ll know in a few weeks….