On December 4th 2015, I got a message containing one of the scariest of words possible: cancer. Thyroid cancer, in fact.
My friend had just translated my thyroid biopsy results. I’d asked him to do so, because the hospital had handed me a slip of paper I didn’t understand. I certainly didn’t expect this news.
Let me backtrack a moment…
It had all started rather innocently. During a routine test for my Chinese working visa, I noticed that my blood pressure was rather high. The doctors in China hadn’t really been concerned about this. Me neither. Since childhood, I’d known that I was going to have problems with high blood pressure (it runs in my family).
So the following summer, in my hometown Szczecinek in Poland, I asked my doctor about it.
As I expected, she prescribed me some pills. She also said a bit concerned about my irregular heart rate, so she sent me in for some blood tests.
The First Biopsy
The tests came back good. But my TSH was on the high side of the norm (4.1, with the norm being 0.35-4.5). The TSH is a hormone that regulates the thyroid. This allows the gland to manage many important parts of the body and keep it healthy.
My doctor immediately decided to do an ultrasound. She told me I had two nodules in my thyroid: one was more than 1cm in diameter, one 2mm, both on the left side
Just a bit of explanation: the thyroid consists of two half-spheres called lobes. The size of the thyroid itself is around 5 centimetres in diameter. The nodules are, in fact, very common. Most people have them and, in most cases, they’re nothing to worry about.
My doctor assured me that this is most likely nothing serious. Maybe she was just trying to calm me down. Regardless, she said I needed to do a biopsy, just in case.
All this happened on a Friday evening in late August. Our flight to China was the Wednesday after. So we really didn’t have much time.
I managed to book a biopsy in Warsaw privately a day before we were supposed to fly. It wasn’t easy, as these appointments usually need to be booked at least a week in advance — if not more. I spent quite some time searching the internet and making phone calls. Finally, I found a private gynaecologist, who also did thyroid biopsies. He had room in his schedule on Tuesday.
The thyroid biopsy is done with a long needle. Basically, a sample of thyroid tissue needs to be taken for examination. The doctor uses ultrasound, so he can see what he is doing. The biopsy itself wasn’t really painful, but it was unpleasant. The doctor warned me that my neck might hurt for a day or so after.
He told me that normally I could pick the results up from his office after three weeks. I explained that we were flying to China the day after, and the doctor promised that he’ll send my results by email.
Returning to China
The next few weeks were hectic. I was starting a new job in the Chinese city of Putian, where we’d already lived for a year. So I didn’t have much time to think about getting the results. A month later I kept trying to call this doctor, but couldn’t get through. My mum helped me with that and finally after two months I got the results.
The results were inconclusive. They said that there was no cancer cells detected, but also that these samples were not enough, so I needed to do another biopsy.
I felt annoyed by this news, but I knew I had to act quickly. So I asked a Chinese friend for help. We went together to one of the hospitals in China to see an endocrinologist – a thyroid doctor. There we found out that in Putian I can only have my blood tests done, but for biopsy I need to go to Fuzhou (the capital city of Fujian Province, one hour away by train).
My husband Chris decided to join us on our trip to Fuzhou. Sam (our Chinese friend who was helping us) had tried to call the hospital first, but they hadn’t told him much. So we needed to visit in person.
Fujian Medical University Union Hospital is huge, the endocrinology department was actually in a different building. We went into a large office with a lot of people in, and one doctor surrounded by patients.
We stood in the queue to see him. When our turn came, he seemed a bit surprised to see us, but Sam explained why we were there.
Then the doctor asked, “Where do you want to have the operation: China or Poland?”. I was completely taken aback. I didn’t understand why he was talking about an operation when we didn’t know if the thyroid needed to be removed.
After a moment I managed to say that if I needed an operation, I’d probably have in China. I wanted to ensure that they actually do the biopsy and don’t turn me away. The doctor checked all the results and told us to come back in half an hour for a biopsy.
The Second Biopsy
In China, when you sign up at a hospital you get a special card. It has all your information, plus you can put money on it for your treatments and medicines. You have to pay for everything in advance. There was a long queue and it took half an hour was just enough time to get my card and top it up. Fortunately, it wasn’t too expensive, only around 500 RMB (around 81 USD).
We made it back to the office on time. A few doctors took us through a long corridor. Then we went over a bridge that connected two buildings. They told us also that we were lucky, because it’s very difficult to get an appointment for a biopsy.
Having had one thyroid biopsy before, I thought it wasn’t really going to be too painful. I was wrong…
The doctor told Sam and Chris to wait in the corridor, and they took me to a small room, that looked pretty much like any doctor’s office. There were at least six doctors in there. One was doing a biopsy, the second observing it on a computer and the rest were just standing around and talking. My Chinese then was much worse than it is now, so I didn’t really understand much.
During the biopsy they discovered a third nodule in my thyroid, so they needed to take a sample of all three. This meant they had to stick that huge needle into my neck three times.
Taking a sample from the smallest nodule turned out to be really painful, which is really understandable as they had to actually “find” it with the needle. I remember hearing Chinese words: “zuo” – left, “you” – right, and “yidiandian” – a little bit. The doctor with the needle also kept saying to me “No swallow, no swallow”. I didn’t dare.
Fortunately, it was over after a few minutes. They told us that results would be ready after around a week, and we went home.
Getting the Results
In China, most places work normally on Sundays. Chris and I didn’t have a day off together. So we decided to go to the hospital on Sunday a couple of weeks later to get the results.
We’d heard that we needed to put my hospital card into a special machine, which would print out the results. Of course, there was no English version. We had to take pictures of the screen and send them to as many friends as possible for translation. Turned out that these machines couldn’t be used to get results.
We went to the reception desk for more information. Fortunately the girl there spoke English. She told us to come back on a weekday, as the relevant office was closed on Sundays.
Obviously, we were pretty upset and decided to grab a cup of coffee in a nearby Starbucks. As we were walking towards the coffeeshop I heard, “Aleksandra?” (that’s my full name by the way, Ola is a shortened form).
I turned around to see one of the doctors who had done my biopsy. He spoke enough English to explain to us that we need to go to the same office we’d been to before. We could get my results there.
We went back to the hospital and within 10 minutes we had results of both the biopsy and ultrasound. Both were, of course, in Chinese.
Bad News of Thyroid Cancer
I asked Sam to translate them for me when I got back to Putian. The biopsy results were handwritten, so very difficult for me to read. Sam had a quick look and said he needs to double-check a few words. There was a lot of medical terminology and he wanted to be sure he hadn’t made any mistakes. I really wasn’t expecting what happened next…
On December 4th 2015 I got a message from Sam. “…papillary carcinoma in the left lobe … possible thyroid cancer in the right lobe …” These words really hit me: thyroid cancer.
It was possibly one of the first times in my life I truly realised my mortality. Cancer is something that happens to other people, not to us… It took a few days to actually come to believe this was happening to me.
Fortunately, I have a good friend who used to work for a long time as a medical editor. She was able to explain to me that “carcinoma” is actually cancer, and helped me better understand the results.
But it soon became clear to me that I had an ordeal ahead of me.
This is already a long post and there’s much more to my story. This is a first part of a series of posts about my cancer and how I dealt with it in China and Poland.
Thank you for reading. Feel free to leave a comment and share your thoughts and experiences.