To be honest, I don’t remember clearly that Friday morning when I received the message about my thyroid cancer. I remember being strangely calm for the most of the time, distant from myself, as if this wasn’t really happening to me.
Without uttering a word, I handed Chris (my husband) my phone. I thought it better he read it himself. Our first reaction was disbelief. Rumour had it that in China doctors often insist on unnecessary procedures to get more money out of patients.
We really didn’t think anybody would go that far. But we just couldn’t accept I had cancer. We wanted to believe that someone had made a mistake…
Dealing with the News
My husband and I knew next to nothing about thyroid cancer. As it was morning in China, it was still middle of the night in both Poland and England, so we couldn’t contact our families.
My friend Somayeh, who lived next door, finished work just before noon. So just after that I went to knock on her door. I tried to tell her what had happened, but then the tears came. I couldn’t speak.
So, I just gave her my phone. She used to work as a medical editor and she explained to me that carcinoma also means cancer. The result therefore indicated thyroid cancer in both parts of the thyroid. Talking helped, despite the fact I still had no idea what to do.
We got in touch with our families, and everybody was equally shocked and in disbelief. Eventually we all got around to doing a lot of research online.
That evening we were invited to a birthday party at KTV (Chinese karaoke). However, we both didn’t feel much like partying, so after a couple of hours I talked to the birthday girl and we left.
Deciding Where to Do the Operation
The next day we had enough information to whittle down our choices to two: operation either in China or Chris’s home country of England. I wasn’t insured in Poland, so I’d only be able to go private, which we thought would be too expensive.
If we decided to go back to England, then I could have taken advantage of their free health service. I would have to live in England permanently to be entitled to healthcare. In practice, this would mean that we would have to move back to England for good.
We didn’t want to go back there. We liked our lives in China and didn’t want to abandon them.
The Chinese doctors had told me that I needed an operation, and might need radiotherapy too. It would depend on my histopathology result.
Histopathology is a test performed on the thyroid after it’s been removed. It’s sent to the lab to check for thyroid cancer. At the time, I didn’t understand exactly how the biopsy and histopathology test could give different results.
A little side note: a nodule is basically a tumour, just with a different name. A malignant tumour means cancer. Not all tumours are cancers but all cancers are malignant. I apologise for the lesson, but thinking all tumours are cancers is a common mistake. I, in all honesty, didn’t know the difference.
Later, I talked about this to my family doctor. She explained that the cancer cells and benign tumour cells look similar. If the technician isn’t sure they flag it as thyroid cancer, just to be safe. So it was still possible I didn’t actually have cancer.
The Final Decision
Chris has doctors in the family, so we got a lot of information from them. Also, our families on both sides talked to as many people as possible to help give us a little more clarity. We managed to book the appointment for the next Wednesday at the Fujian Medical University Union Hospital in Fuzhou (where I’d previously had the biopsy) to talk about the operation.
However, I’d already made my decision: the operation in China would be too stressful for both of us. We’d have to go a different city where we didn’t know anyone. None of us spoke Chinese. Few of the hospital staff spoke English. It would be too difficult.
But we still went to the hospital in Fuzhou to get more information. I must say, I was really impressed.
They took us to a meeting room and showed us a long Powerpoint presentation about thyroid cancer. Then, the consultant doctor took me aside to show me patients who had been through the procedure.
They even explained how they did a kind of operation called a laparoscopic operation, which is done through the chest and leaves much smaller scars. At Fuzhou, this isn’t much more expensive than a regular operation. I could also tell that they do a lot of operations.
The consultant showed how the scars looked after the laparoscopic operation, and none of them were more than three centimetres long.
Still, this didn’t sway our decision. We started looking into flights to England.
Fortunately, before we booked, another option that we hadn’t accounted for emerged. I got a message from my mum about an operation in a private hospital in Poland. The price was less than the operation in China. Plus, my side of the family would be there to support me and there wouldn’t be a language barrier for me.
Preparing for the Operation
We booked a flight for December 15th. Our holidays would have started at the end of January, so we only needed to take 6 weeks off. We planned to go back to China late February, in time for the second semester.
But we had problems convincing the school where we worked to let us both go. At the beginning they only wanted to let me go, not Chris. Finally, we managed to convince them to let Chris take unpaid leave.
Thanks to our wonderful Foreign Administrative Officer, Mary, I received normal pay during that time. The other teachers agreed to cover our classes, so they got overtime. The school also saved money.
Before we left, we went for dinner with our friends. My Japanese friend Yuko gave me three origami cranes. She explained that in Japan when a family member is in hospital, the rest of the family make one thousand cranes. But my friend had only had time to make three.
I also got a lucky charm from our manager at my school. Everybody was really supportive.
After a long train journey, we flew from Shanghai by night. We arrived in Warsaw in the morning and took a train to Poznań. There, we stayed at my sister’s. The hospital was very close.
We had to adjust to the cold. When we left Putian, it was 20 degrees centigrade. In Shanghai, it dropped to 10. In Poland it was 0 degrees.
The day after we went to talk to the surgeon. Although we’d planned the operation for the following day, the doctor after seeing my results said that I should first see an endocrinologist (thyroid doctor). So we moved the operation to the beginning of January, a couple of weeks later.
That gave me time to visit the endocrinologist to check all my results. She said that everything was fine for me to have the operation. She prescribed me some thyroid hormones to normalise my thyroid hormone levels.
After spending Christmas in England with Chris’s family, we flew back to Poland just after New Year’s. Chris’s dad followed us and arrived just before my operation.
Chris’s dad arrived on the 4th in the morning, the day before the operation. We all took a taxi to the nearby town, Środa Wielkopolska, where Medicus (the name of the clinic) was. We stayed at a hotel for the first night. Then, at the clinic they told us that they had spare beds, so Chris could stay in a room with me. My mum and Chris’s dad stayed the remaining nights at the hotel.
The temperature now had dropped to -15 centigrade. Fortunately, the hospital was warm.
I started the next day with a small breakfast and late in the morning we arrived at the clinic. I gave all my documents to the nurse, changed, then the nurse put a cannula into my arm. Later the anaesthetist talked to me about my medicines.
After that, I had a bit of waiting time. I didn’t really feel nervous. I knew about possible complications: damaged vocal cords could hoarsen my voice or make it very difficult to speak, parathyroid damage could cause me to need calcium supplements for life. Or if the surgeon accidentally cut the windpipe, you can imagine what would happen.
But once again, I felt strangely calm. Sometimes, I believe that this is how the body responds to too much stress – we simply stop feeling it.
Just before 3pm, anaesthetist came to take me to the operation room. There they laid me down on a bed. The anaesthetist was extremely chatty; this might have been to calm me down. I was asleep within moments.
It felt like I only slept a few minutes…
After the Operation
I woke up to an empty room, no people. My mum was there just moments later. She called Chris, told him that I’d awoken. I was feeling weak, but didn’t feel any pain. I could speak without a problem, so my greatest worry was over (having problems with speaking is not a good thing for a teacher).
Later my mum told me that the operation had taken almost three hours. They’d wanted to make sure everything was fine, and that the lymph nodes hadn’t been affected (thyroid cancer first phases to the lymph nodes).
Soon they moved me back to the ward. I was greeted by a heart-warming sight. The nurses had taken my paper origami cranes and hung them on the IV stand.
On the first evening, the doctors checked on me almost every hour. I felt fine, just sleepy. An automatic machine checked my blood pressure every half an hour. It was a bit high, but the doctor assured me that this is normal. Pain causes high blood pressure.
I spent two more days in clinic. Chris stayed in a room with me. I could get out of bed, but not for long. I had problems with reading, so Chris started reading Richard Bach’s “Jonathan Livingstone Seagull” to me, which felt inspiring at this time. My mum and Chris’s dad visited us a few times, and also my sister dropped in with her husband and my little nephew.
Starting to Recover
After they discharged me from the clinic, we went to see the surgeon so he could take the stitches out. It surprised me that stitches could be removed from the neck after only two days (normally it’s around a week).
I must say that the surgeon did an excellent job. One year later almost nobody notices my scar.
They also told me that my histopathology result should be ready in one or two weeks. If they discovered thyroid cancer I would need to have radiotherapy. If not, I wouldn’t have to worry about it.
I really hoped I wouldn’t need radiotherapy, as this would create more problems. We were planning to fly back to China mid-February. After the operation the neck needs time to heal, so it must be done at least one to two months later.
After that I didn’t want to leave it for too long, so I would need to have a radiotherapy in China, which wouldn’t be easy.
Meanwhile, I was feeling fine, although a bit weak. It didn’t really heart that much, so I didn’t need painkillers. However, standing for one hour would tire me. I could still use my brain and I knew I couldn’t plan anything before I received the results. I decided to focus on other things.
A New Objective
Cancer really makes people put life into perspective. I realised that although I’d lived in China for well over a year, I could barely speak the language. I’d already taken some lessons at the local school, but I didn’t feel I’d advanced enough.
So I made a new resolution. I decided to do something I’d wanted to do for a long time, but had kept putting off. I signed up for Add1Challenge.
This is a community of people who help each other learn all kinds of different languages. The challenge lasts 90 days and every participant has to produce a 15-minute video of a conversation with a native speaker by the end of it.
I recommend it to anybody who wants to learn a language. Now, I’m taking my third Add1Challenge. So far, I’ve succeeded in every one.
The Add1Challenge started on 16th of January 2016. The same day I got a phone call from my doctor. The histopathology results had come through. They had detected thyroid cancer. I would need radiotherapy…
Thank you for reading. Each time I write, I’m surprised how long the post turns out. I hope you enjoyed it.
Stay tuned to Being a Nomad for the conclusion next week. Meanwhile, in a few days, Chris will blog about our trip to the South Shaolin Temple in Putian.
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Next week I will post the last part of this story.