Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Trials of Life

The summer has gotten away from me, I'm afraid, and as I was preparing a post about what I've learned this season about gardening through trial and error, a much bigger life lesson was pitched my way.

I found out on Monday, August 24 that I have thyroid cancer. This is the note I shared on Facebook announcing the news to friends and family:


Dear Friends,

I know several of you have asked me to give you an update on my thyroid situation.

To give some background, about four years ago I was told I was "pre-hypo thyroid." Thyroid troubles were on my radar, so this summer when I noticed a very slight swelling in my neck I went to the doctor. He knew I was pre-hypo and also that I had been diagnosed as fairly anemic in the winter of 2009 (which can, for women, be a symptom of thyroid troubles). So he ordered a thyroid sonogram the following day, then called me the morning after with the news that I had a small (1/2 inch) nodule on the right lobe of my thyroid gland.

The next step was a FNA (Fine Needle Aspiration), the results of which that came two days later indicating not that the nodule was benign or malignant, but rather that it was a suspicious "follicular neoplasm" that would have to be surgically removed to be biopsied.

On August 20 I had the one-hour, out patient surgery on my thyroid gland. The surgeon removed half of my thyroid and the suspicious nodule. The surgery was the easy part -- the recovery was no picnic, but thankfully, it went rather quickly: it is now day five and my 3" neck wound is stiff and itchy, but otherwise I feel pretty good.

When I went in for my post-surgery consult on Monday morning, my doctor had not yet received the news from pathology. My mom was with me, so she took me out to lunch and to a movie to settle my nerves as I awaited the news. It was about 1/3 of the way through Julie & Julia that my cell phone started buzzing. I answered and it was Dr. Bowman with the news: the nodule contained malignant cells, meaning I have the horrid "C-word": Cancer. I'd have to return to surgery immediately to remove the remainder of my thyroid.

My voice was still weak from the first surgery, so I mostly just cried as he told me the news, and then pulled my mom out of the movie and we went home. Steve left work early and joined us. I cried on and off for a few hours, but Steve and my mom were a positive, calming force. After my mom left, Steve and I decided to do something relaxing, as much as that was possible. It was a beautiful evening, thank God, so we started walking. We decided to walk all the way to the mall 2.5 miles away, taking the path along the Menomonee River, and I think it was the best thing I could have ever done. The walking was so empowering and wonderful that by the time I made it to the mall I felt 100 times better, then and for the rest of the night, and until today. We had salads and smoothies at Panera and then hung around at the bookstore for a while before walking home.

This morning, pre-surgery #2, I'm trying to keep busy and stay positive. I'm cleaning the house, weeding and watering my gardens, organizing my office. I go in for surgery at 11:45 a.m., then they operate at 1:30. I will stay over at the hospital one night and then go to my parents' house to recover for a few days.

I think this will be a critical turning point in my life. I am learning so much from this experience, life lessons I have mostly regarded as cliches until now. Like how to not take things for granted, how to let myself be taken care of by the people I love, what true friendship means, how to not let anxiety get a grip on my soul, how to stay positive, how to treat my body as a temple, and how to live in the moment.

Obviously I'm not through this storm just yet. But I am hopeful that, as they say, "this too shall pass." And I ask you for your thoughts and prayers as I make it through this trial, and I thank you for your thoughts and prayers to this point, and for your love and support.


As I was sitting in that movie with my mom on Monday, I could barely concentrate. I'm a pretty high strung person, extremely neurotic, and I sat there in the dark theater turning over and over in my mind the possibility that I might have cancer. I imagined the doctor's voice as he said the word "malignant" and hoped I wouldn't panic. I thought about that scene in Hannah and Her Sisters, when Woody Allen's extremely neurotic character Mickey is sitting at the doctor's office waiting for the M.D. to return with results of a cancer test. He first imagines in horror the doctor coming in telling him he has the c-word. A moment later, the doctor enters and tells him he's fine. When Mickey learns he's OK, he runs through the streets, kicking up his heels.

I was hoping that my experience would be like Mickey's; I fantasized about how great it would be when I, too, could possibly run through the streets kicking up my own heels.

Surely the news would be good, I told myself. I had already suffered enough through the first surgery and the terror alone of possibly having cancer. God would let me off the hook. I am a relatively healthy 33-year-old with virtually no family history of cancer; surely I was one of the 90 percent of folks who find out their thyroid nodules are benign. And anyway, hypochondriacs like me are never *really* sick, right? Being a hypochondriac offers a sort of superstitious consolation: we who worry about problems we don't have are safe from actually having those problems. "If I fake it, I don't have it," said the character Bob Wiley in the film What about Bob. To date, this has always been my way of coping with rampant fears.

But there in the dark, after consoling myself with these mostly irrational thoughts, my mind would swing to the dark side. I would tell myself I had to accept the real possibility that the news wouldn't be good. And I'd try to brace myself for the worst, and hope that I wouldn't crumble if and when the doctor said the word "malignant."

Back and forth I'd swing, every minute, every second, as I waited for The Fateful Phone Call.

"Calm down, Heather," my mom said to me in the Theater, putting her hand on my arm. "Whatever the news is, we'll get through it."

"Yes," I replied, "but the thing is, I'm scared. Tomorrow could either be the best day or the worst day of my life."

I realize now, in retrospect, that what I should have said was not that tomorrow would be the best or the worst day of my life. The day I found out I had cancer was merely another "first day" of my life, just like the day I went off to college, or the day I got married, or the day I gave birth to my first child. It was a day for a new beginning, a day to open my mind to a new way of thinking and living, and a day to face my fears of death and dying and acknowledge that no matter how hard I run from suffering, no matter how arduously I work toward distracting myself from these frights, suffering and death are real, and each and every one of us encounters them. So it isn't so much the fact that I will encounter trials that I should anticipate, but rather how I will deal with them when they inevitably come. This is the beginning of healing and growth.

Of course, I have spent some time wondering why or how I could have gotten cancer when none of my parents and siblings and very few of my relatives have had this experience. NO ONE in my family, to my knowledge, has thyroid cancer.

I could speculate on causes. Tainted water. A high-carb diet. Too many convenience foods. Radiation exposure through my cell phone or through climbing a local radio tower when I was a rebellious teenager. Irradiated food. Standing too close to microwaves. Pesticides. There are all sorts of ideas floating in my mind about how cancer cells could grow in my body, and if I wanted, I could cling to blame of any one or multiple causes, of my own behaviors or of someone else's, and cling to the hope that if I just do X, Y and Z I'll be able to beat this problem and never suffer again.

The truth is, it doesn't matter. My mom said something very striking to me that day at the mall. I was telling her that, like all people who experience something painful or dreaded, I briefly went through the "why me" period. I cried, whimpered, and felt lost and alone. I asked God, "Why did this have to happen to me? What did I do to deserve this?" My mom, a woman who, before the age of 13, lost both her biological father and her beloved step-father to untimely deaths, responded in this way: "why NOT me?" We all have to suffer. There is no avoiding it. And if not us, it will be someone else who suffers. The good thing about suffering is that we can experience what so many others have experienced, and share in the trials that are a part of the human condition. And, God willing, when we suffer we are offered an opportunity grow in leaps and bounds.

And it is a tremendous blessing to be able to really grow, to learn from suffering. It is life affirming and healing to suffer. Because in between periods of despair, of anxiety, of feeling more alone than you ever have before, of feeling like the pain and fear will never subside, there is a light that comes when you acknowledge that a power bigger than yourself is Good, and that power will bring you safely to the other side if only you hold on with all your might.

I'd like to say one more thing about that power -- about God. If you know me, you know that I am a pretty "religious" person, although I hate to use the term. It's almost my claim to fame. Heather Zydek, she's "really religious." Churchy. She's an "Orthodox Christian," whatever that means. It's true that I am a church-going sort, that I take the Christian tradition as seriously as this anger-prone, foul-mouthed, gluttonous, passionate woman can. So when I prayed for a miracle prior to my surgery, I in my fragile, weak faith did genuinely hope for something miraculous to happen. And when the news was bad, instead of good, and I had to endure not just one but two surgeries to my throat within five days, some folks, even religious, might have become angry with God. God didn't heal me, so therefore God does not exist. And if He does exist, either He doesn't like me or He's a big jerk.

I admit I was tempted to play this game. But I clung then, and continue to cling, to one idea that overrides all my doubts. After the first surgery, I was filled with despair and panic. And what I repeated most during those days were two prayers: the words of Psalm 23 ("the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want") and "Please, God, do not forsake me. Do not abandon me." These prayers, and, I believe, the prayers of many loved ones, helped me to realize that God is not far away from us, ever. He is right there, on the other side of a mysterious veil, and if we reach out, he will invisibly but powerfully give us the strength to go on. There is so much comfort in this. God may not have made my cancerous nodule disappear before surgery, but He held me close when I felt Despair pulling me with all its might into a pit from which I might have never returned. And He gave me hope and wisdom to see that He can use all things for Good.

And aside from this, I now believe that one should not discount the miracle of modern medicine. Sure, Western medicine is wrought with problems, and I'll be the first to admit it. Still, the fact that a 69-year-old surgeon could gracefully remove my cancerous thyroid gland and bring great comfort and healing to me is a gift from God. Miraculous, in its own sense. Every day I wake up, and with every breath I breathe, I have a new chance to live my life better, to truly experience the good around me, and to truly love all the people I meet.

Now my mission, my beliefs in sustainability and a clean earth and in real communities are clearer, but more personal. Because I feel all the more passionately about wholesome food and clean air and water, but also about living a life in the moment, not rushing to bigger, better illusions, and not ever taking God's many gifts for granted. That starts with appreciation for the fruits of the earth that sustain us, and it starts with good, loving stewardship of these gifts, and with loving compassion toward one's neighbors. And it ends with trust in God, and a willingness to hang on to Him during this sometimes wild ride called life.


  1. That was so beautiful. I love you very much.

  2. I'd missed this post. Well written. Your own faith calms me about your situation. Because you know, we worry very much the same. And I get paranoid to the max about myself, but for you, it'll be OK. When will you get further surgery results or retests done?

    Love you. Nanc

  3. This is a totally beautiful, inspiring post. Thank you for writing it. You remain in our prayers...

    Fr. John and Jenny Schroedel