By Mandy Lamothe
Hey y’all, I’m Mandy and I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, “the good cancer,” in March 2014. I didn’t know there was a good or bad cancer to get, but boy, was I excited I got the good one. Such a load off, knowing that it was just going to be “maybe one pill a day” and a tiny surgery, and then my cancer would be kicked to the curb and I could go on living my life.
However, this was not the case. Not long after I was initially diagnosed in March 2014, it was discovered that my cancer had spread to the left side of my thyroid. At the end of September that year, I had my left thyroid lobe removed, along with four calcium ducts. I was now living with a total thyroidectomy. I had to endure constant medication changes and add daily calcium supplements to my drug cocktail. Again, I was told that this was no big deal.
After a few months of getting used to the higher Synthroid dose and having a radioactive iodine (RAI) treatment in December, life would be back to “normal.” Ha! I did not even know what normal meant anymore.
Despite the emerging concern overcoming me, I once again put my trust in my medical team. I had my RAI treatments during Christmas, which meant taking seven days off of work and being in complete isolation. When I say complete isolation, I mean no one anywhere around me for the first 24 hours, followed by six days at a distance from others. I had to stay in a separate bedroom with a separate bathroom and let the RAI do its thing.
I spent the first year of my diagnosis extremely exhausted. I put on a ton of weight, suffered from hair thinning/loss, and occasionally had such great pains in my joints that my husband would have to assist me getting out of bed or getting up and down stairs. I was in and out of my general practitioner’s office, and was on roughly 20 pills (supplements and prescription) to help with everything from exhaustion to anxiety, depression, pain management, and gastro-intestinal issues. I truly thought I was going insane. My medical team at the time would just tell me to “exercise more” and “eat better.” I would go through medication changes more times than I could count and they would never really investigate further than that.
All of the changes in my body chemistry at this point left me feeling alone and hopeless. I was not getting medical answers and was beginning to think that I was making this all up in my head. I was angry and in pain all the time, so I drank. And, boy, did I drink.
Every day, a drink after work, a drink before bed. On the weekends, Baileys in my coffee or a glass of wine followed by a few gin and tonics. Why? Because it made the pain go away, and it made me feel temporarily “normal.”
To fully understand why I now say “cancer helped get me sober,” you need to know a brief history of mine. I am an addict. I have a really addictive personally and started drinking at a young age along with partaking in drugs. I moved out when I was 17 and thus began my drinking daily and drug use for the next 10+ years. Am I embarrassed by this? Yes, of course. Do I regret the horrible decisions I made while under the influence, I truly do, but it’s part of my story and without it, I would not be who I am today and where I am in my cancer journey.
So, let’s get back to the story. Now I had one round of RAI and no thyroid and my life was not getting back to “normal.” I went down to part-time work at a career I loved because the exhaustion was just too much for 40+ hours a week. When I finished my four-hour workdays, I would usually come home and take a nap and/or make a few drinks to help with the pain flooding my whole body. I spent the next two-plus years dealing with my pain, anxiety, and frustration with the way I was being treated by drinking and partaking in drugs. It’s hard to explain to some that this is the way I dealt with this, but sadly, I did not know any other way. I was getting nowhere with my prognosis and felt like a burden on family and friends. I didn’t just always want to be complaining.
In September 2016 I went in for a routine scan and they found that not only was my cancer was back, it had spread to lymph nodes on the right side of my neck. I went in for a third surgery and the removal of 12 lymph nodes. With this news looming over me, I took a long hard look at some of the medical care I had been receiving and decided to find a new general practitioner with a greater understanding of thyroid diseases.
My new GP finally listened to my concerns and problems and changed my medication from Synthroid to Natural Desiccated Thyroid (made from pig thyroid). The medication change made a huge difference within only a few weeks. My joint pain was getting better, I had more energy, and I was able to start walking daily and get back into yoga. I was not angry and frustrated with life as much anymore, either. I still was drinking, but not daily, and I was feeling better with life and life with cancer as a young adult.
Sadly, that did not last long as I was due for another round of RAI. This time, it was going to be the highest dose they will give someone. It was never really explained to me how this much RAI would affect my mouth, teeth, and body. Within hours of drinking this metallic-burnt-almond-tasting concoction, my lips were swelling up and I could not drink very well.
Because I was radioactive, I could not go to an emergency room; I had to call the hospital’s triage nurses who instructed me to suck on ice cubes, take a Gravol, and try to drink fluids. So that is what I did, pretty much for the next three days. I rarely ate, my mouth was super sore and dry, and I was beyond exhausted. I just slept.
A week went by and I went back to my cancer centre for my routine body scan. Within 24 hours, my specialist was calling, which is usually not a good sign. No news is usually the best when it comes to results. I will never forget that phone call.
“Mandy, I have the results from your full body scan and is this a good time to talk?” Also, not a good sign.
“Mandy there are three growths in your lungs, one in your right under 7mm, and two in your left, both under 7mm. As they are under 7mm, we could do more damage to biopsy them than to just put you on a wait and see.”
And that was it, a 10-minute phone call to let me know that not only had my cancer spread again (for the third time) but there was also not much they could do at this point for me. It will be blood work every six to eight weeks with a follow-up every six months with scans in between appointments.
I called my bestie and bawled my eyes out over video chat, then I called my parents and broke down to them, and lastly I drove to my husband’s work and cried in his arms. Just when I thought I was getting back to a sort of normal life, cancer was back, and this time it was just sitting there.
Now, what I did next was not my finest moment. I drank a whole bottle of wine and even had some hard liquor in there. I called into work sick and just fell apart. I did not want to be on this earth anymore and thought about ways to end my life.
Yes, this is terrifying looking back on now, and if you truly know the person I am today, you would not think I would be like that. But sadly, I was. I had no support group to go talk to and I didn’t know any other young adults my age facing cancer. Heck, I was one of only two people in my friends circle who had cancer. I had found comfort with an few online support groups, but the closest people to me were in San Francisco, Oklahoma, and Arizona.
The next move I did is something I will forever be grateful for. I googled “young adults with lung cancer” and the first thing in my search was Young Adult Cancer Canada. I started scrolling through the website and found survivor profiles with young adults from across Canada — some were even battling thyroid cancer. I broke down; it felt like a big weight was being lifted off my shoulders. Within less than 12 hours of me sending YACC an email, I was put into a secret Facebook group and told about Localife Edmonton as well as Wellspring, another organization that serves as an outreach place for anyone battling cancer, surviving cancer, or a supporter of someone going through cancer. I now had hundreds of people from across Canada welcoming me to a supportive community.
I spent the next few months opening up about myself, my battles with cancer, and life post cancer. I felt heard and accepted for this. I didn’t feel judged or pitied, or like I was a burden. I opened up about my drinking problem and how that was the way I coped with stress and life. I spent most of 2017 trying to stay sober. Instead of drinking, I would journal or talk to someone about my stressors. I was doing great, but occasionally I slipped up.
I attended my first YACC Survivor Conference in St. John’s, NL in June 2018 which completely changed everything and helped make me the person I am today. I got to meet people from across the country who I had spent the last year talking to. I got to share my voice and story. I got to attend workshops for grieving my pre-cancer life and ways to help my husband — supporters need to be supported as well.
At the end of conference, I was flying high on life. We were asked to write a letter to ourselves that would be mailed to us “when the time was right.” In my letter, I made a pact with myself that I would stay sober, because even though cancer sucks and it took my early 30s away from me, it did not take me. I would make every day matter, I would look after myself, I would love myself, I would love life and share YACC with anyone who would listen.
I later attended YACC’s Retreat Yourself in November 2018 with my husband and 28 other wonderful humans for a four-day weekend. We dove right into small group discussions on sexual health after cancer, life pre- and post-cancer, body image, and so much more. I made a pact with myself that I would no longer need drugs and alcohol to cope with stress.
I started meditating daily, journaling, and attending sisterhood circles monthly. I got my Reiki Practitioner certificate and my Meditation Teacher Certificate. I now spend my time cuddling my three fur babies, having tea/coffee with friends, going outside and being in nature, reading, doing Yoga, and so much more. I have never been this in love with life and having such a great time just being me — without the drugs and alcohol — and I owe it all to getting cancer.
So, thank you, cancer. Truly. You suck and you’re a pain in my neck (literally). You have taken my friends and wrecked so many lives, yet without you, I would not be this strong, beautiful woman, great friend, wonderful wife, loving daughter, sister, and auntie. You showed me life is so much more than getting wasted or having a drink if your day was stressful. I have been shown a new way of coping and I am grateful for that.