‘The doctor is in his Battle Dress Uniform and is straddling me on the exam table. The surgeon told me, ‘you have the best cancer.’ I would learn later how wrong he was.’

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“In August of 2000, two days before my 35th birthday, my life started over. I had been married for fourteen years and my husband and I had two sons who were 9 and 5 years old. We lived on a military base where my husband was assigned as an active duty Marine. On a day which had started just like every other day of my life, my life changed forever with a diagnosis of cancer.

Woman diagnosed with cancer smiles beside husband who is in military
Terri Gates

A few months earlier I had gone to see my family doctor because of a lingering sore throat. She prescribed a medication to suppress the effects of the sore throat and scheduled an ultrasound of my neck because she said, ‘I want to double check everything is okay.’ She asked an internal medicine doctor to come in and examine my neck, but nothing suspicious was found.  She had some blood drawn for testing and scheduled a follow-up appointment. At the follow-up, my family doctor told me my thyroid blood tests were normal. I had never been told anything about thyroid blood work and found this odd because it was not typical for any doctor to do extra tests randomly. Days later, I had the ultrasound which showed a nodule on my right thyroid lobe and I was scheduled to see an Ear, Nose and Throat (ENT) specialist. The ENT doctor told me, ‘There is only a 5% chance the nodule is cancer.’ With that information, I decided to wait a year to see if the nodule grew.

On a return visit to my family doctor for a back strain, she asked me about the nodule and I told her of my choice. She told me she really wanted me to get a biopsy of the nodule. After agreeing to do so, she scheduled a Fine Needle Aspiration (FNA) biopsy.  Still not knowing there was cancer growing in my body and feeling as though nothing was wrong, I went to the appointment for the biopsy. The biopsy was a very painful experience. Because the nodule was calcified, it was hard for the doctor to penetrate it with the needle and multiple attempts to gain access to the needed tissue were required. During the entire procedure, I was awake and had only received a local numbing shot prior to the biopsy. I remember the biopsy today as though it was yesterday. The doctor is in his Battle Dress Uniform (BDU) and is straddling me on the exam table to get the correct angle and needed pressure to perform the biopsy. Afterwards, I had bruising all over my neck. A few days later, the ENT doctor came to the building where I worked to let me know the FNA biopsy was conclusive for thyroid cancer. He told me he was getting out of the military and he wanted to ‘ensure I was taken care of and that I didn’t get swept under the rug.’ With the diagnosis, I had to thank my family doctor for being so persistent in guiding me in receiving the proper care to determine the presence of cancer. She told me she prayed for each of her patients and I truly feel as though God used her to find this cancer.

Woman with cancer stands smiling with red and bruised neck
Terri Gates

Surgery was scheduled to remove the right lobe of my thyroid gland. Scared and unsure of what the future would hold, my education on thyroid cancer was in its infancy stage. The surgeon who performed the right thyroid lobe removal had to remove the left lobe a month later because pathology results determined the disease had spread outside of the margins of the tissue.  After my surgeries I had a I131 radioactive treatment. When one has radioactive treatments, you must be in isolation. You feel as though you are infectious. My son, Trey was 5 and couldn’t come in my room. As he left for school, he would say, ‘I can’t hug you.’ So, he stood at the door and with his little fingers crossed and said, ‘We can hug like this.’ I can still picture this sweet little boy standing there, crossing his fingers saying, ‘Mom we’re hugging.’ I cry every time I tell that story. At my follow-up appointment from the surgery, the surgeon told me, ‘you have the best cancer.’ Because of this, he further stated, ‘you will never have a problem with this cancer again.’ What a relief! The cancer was gone, and I never worried I would have to deal with it again. I would learn later how wrong he truly was with this statement.

Even though the surgeon had given me incorrect information, I did not harbor any anger over his improper diagnosis. God was in charge and he would lead me to my next doctor who I felt was like an angel watching over me. My husband retired from the military and we moved to another state. We had relocated close to another military base and I had scheduled an appointment at the hospital for my checkup. I will never forget my first appointment with this new doctor. I was so shocked when he informed me I had tall cell variant papillary thyroid cancer which is a rare, aggressive and incurable cancer. Previously, I was told I had papillary thyroid carcinoma which is an easier cancer to treat, rarely is fatal, and has a better mortality rate.

Woman with papillary thyroid carcinoma stands smiling beside husband in military
Terri Gates

I had never heard of tall cell variant. My doctor had tests performed which showed the cancer was near my heart. He wanted to be very proactive and aggressive in treating me and I was medevaced to Walter Reed Medical Center outside of Washington, DC for a I-131 radioactive treatment. He also informed me he would not be my doctor when I arrived back from Walter Reed because he was being deployed to the Gulf War. I will forever remember that moment as I stood in his exam room. He knew I was a Christian and I had always kept a faithful attitude as I dealt with having cancer. He asked if he could pray with me. We held hands and he prayed over me and for the treatment I would be receiving at Walter Reed.

The radioactive treatment proved to be effective. Once again, I felt I had conquered this cancer. A year later, we moved to another state and I started going to another doctor. She did some tests and my MRI was showing something on the right side of my neck. However, they didn’t believe it was cancer. Even though they felt confident it wasn’t cancer, I wanted a neck dissection to be 100% positive nothing was there. At the time, I didn’t know why, but I felt I needed to have this done. During the surgery 38 lymph nodes were removed with 7 testing positive for cancer. Another test was done to check on any new cancer growth and a spot showed up in the center of my neck. Another biopsy would be needed to determine if the spot was cancerous. An ENT doctor tried to do the biopsy, but was unable to do it for it was in a difficult place to access. Along with the difficult location, the spot was relatively small, and he felt like it was only scar tissue.

I have learned in life to be patient. When something wrong happens, you should wait and good will eventually happen. I continued to be concerned with this mysterious spot in my neck. I felt like it was cancer, but doctors reassured me it was okay.  Once again, my husband’s employment required a move to a different state, and, once again, I had a new doctor. The new doctor was older and only focused on my blood-work. I never felt comfortable with him and many times found his advice to be out of line with everything I had been told and had learned for myself through many hours of research. I was a member of an online thyroid cancer support group and I communicated a lot with a wonderful lady named Valerie.

From day one of talking with her, she had been urging me to see a thyroid cancer specialist. Online research had produced less than 10 thyroid cancer specialists in the United States and all of them were more than 300 miles away from where I lived. I had been feeling I should see a specialist who dealt with tall cell variant. She had the same cancer as me and she saw a great specialist, but he was 2 states away and over a 5-hour drive. I remember telling Valerie ‘that’s just too far to drive.’ Today, I can hear her words as though it were yesterday. She simply said, ‘Isn’t your life worth that drive?’ In talks with her, I knew she loved her doctor and had the ultimate respect for him. She talked about his aggressive treatments, his great personality, and his compassion.

So, I contacted her doctor and began testing. His aggressiveness showed early when he had one of his fellow doctors do the biopsy which the other doctor stated he was unable to perform. The results were tall cell variant. I then had a radioactive treatment which was a bigger dose than I had ever had before. However, it was unsuccessful because my cells had become resistant to absorbing the radioactive iodine therapy. I had a left neck dissection, paratracheal dissection and upper mediastinal dissection surgery to remove the cancer that was seen on my MRI and then a month later I had external beam radiation to the entire region where I had previous cancer occurrences.  Over thirteen years later, I am so happy I made the five-hour drive to see my doctor, who continues to care for me today.

After an extremely painful recovery, I wanted to contact Valerie to tell her about my experience and to catch up with her. When I called, her husband answered and informed me she had passed away. I never met Valerie in person, but she will always be an important part of my journey with this cancer. She was the beginning of me finding someone to assist in slowing this cancer down. This new doctor’s statement about my 3rdsurgery plays over in my mind quite often. In his report he stated, ‘It was serendipitous of the patient to request the neck dissection.’ I know God gave me that gut feeling something was wrong.

Living with cancer can, at times, be depressing; but, it also gives me incredible strength. I think of all I’ve been through: four surgeries to remove cancer, four radioactive treatments and an intense six-week, thirty-day external beam radiation treatment. I think of what I have lost. I have zero saliva, having lost my salivary function, because of the numerous radioactive treatments along with the external beam radiation. I must drink water with all my food and I drink water constantly to relieve a dry mouth and throat which cause chocking if I let them get too dry. I look at the loss of saliva as the consequence to the treatments I had to save my life. I try not to complain too much about not having saliva for it’s a price I can pay for my life.

I am so thankful for my doctor’s aggressive treatments and I have complete faith in his care of me.  I have a scar that goes from one ear to the other ear. I am very proud of this scar because it shows me and the world the strength and the fight in me. I have my radiation mask hanging in my bedroom as a reminder of surviving through radiation treatments which proves I can make it through anything. My radiation treatments are the most painful experience of my life. The recovery was tough. I lost 40 pounds and it took almost a year to return to normal.

My Godson, Quintin, calls me Wonder Woman. I laughed when I first heard him say it. He consistently reminds me of how strong I am, and he always lifts me up when I’m down. Having positive people in your life is so important. My family is amazing!  My husband is always there for me. He listens to me, he takes me to appointments, and he lifts my spirits as well. Our two sons keep me positive. Both make me laugh and they remind me I’ve made it this far and that God will keep bringing me through it all. I think my cancer made my boys strong, compassionate young men, as well as positive individuals. My son, Tim, was 9 when I was first diagnosed, and I feel like he had to grow up quickly. He helped take care of his brother and has always been so mature. Both of my sons are so kind and giving and I am so proud of them.

Collage of woman with papillary thyroid carcinoma and her sons
Terri Gates

I don’t hate my cancer diagnosis; I embrace it for it has given me courage, strength, compassion, and a love for life I didn’t have before. I think of others as I never really did before. I began a therapy dog team with my dog two years after my radiation treatments. I have been doing dog therapy for 11 years now.  I love visiting people and making them smile.

Woman with papillary thyroid carcinoma kneels beside two dogs and red car with sign "Therapy Dog Team" on it
Terri Gates

Volunteering my time with my dog helps me cope with my own fear of living with cancer and the depression I sometimes have when I think of all I’ve been through. I know the depression is there and I must fight against it. Tall cell variant can transform into anaplastic cancer which is a terminal cancer. Dwelling on this can put me into a major depression, so I’ve learned how to cope. There are things I do when I feel those depressing feelings creeping up. I call my twin sister, Sherri, my mom or my friends. I think support groups are so important. I am a member of a few online groups and we help each other by asking questions and just being supportive. I have a friend, Annie, who has cancer and we help each other by just understanding one other. She understands me because she lives with cancer too. Each one gives me comfort through words and listening to me. Having someone there for you is such a wonderful gift. If the world could just love each other with no prejudices and an open heart, imagine the happiness that might exist.

I am a different person since being diagnosed with cancer and I’m thankful for who I am. So, I thank you cancer. You didn’t beat me, I won. I didn’t let you take my joy! I am living a positive life. I am happy, and I love my family and friends. I didn’t talk about depression in the beginning of my journey but now I am not embarrassed that I have it. I talk about it and I hope it helps others to deal with it. I think people need to talk more about their fears. We can be there for each other by listening and caring. Some days can be difficult, but by telling how I suffer, I think we can help others not feel so alone. Cancer’s constant companion is depression. It doesn’t sound fair; two against one. But, I fight, and I give my all and I remain victorious!”

Woman with cancer smiles as she stands arm in arm with her husband who is in military
Terri Gates
Woman with papillary thyroid carcinoma smiles
Terri Gates

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Terri Gates of Washington, Missouri. Follow her journey here. Submit your story here. For our best stories, subscribe to our free email newsletter.

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