My Cancer Story

So your pathology results came back…and looks like it’s cancer…..

It was a typical Thursday afternoon in late February. It was a day off from the hospital, but not a day off from work. This particular day, I found myself cleaning the church while listening to my brother’s podcast (I’m not a history buff, but a supportive sister). 

Anyway, a week prior, I had a biopsy done of some suspicious lymph nodes. Ever since I was in high school, I’ve had hypothyroidism, a very common condition where your body doesn’t produce enough thyroid hormone. It is easy to manage with blood work and medication. Since moving to NY two years ago, I have had to get established with all new doctors. My endocrinologist suggested we do a thyroid ultrasound, since it had been a few years and they did not have access to my PA records. 

When the ultrasound showed suspicious lymph nodes, I didn’t think anything of it. Actually, when my doctor wanted me to get a biopsy done, I laughed and asked her, half-jokingly, “what are the odds that it’s cancer?” “Nothing can be determined without pathology,” she replied. 

So, begrudgingly, I went through with the biopsy. I was very unhappy when I realized the hospital wouldn’t pay for my copay. But as I waited to be called back, I was filled with an overwhelming sense of peace, as if the Lord was preparing me for my diagnosis.

When I was called back, this lovely man named Vince got me ready for the ultrasound. Due to a miscommunication, or God’s providence, I waited almost an hour with him until the doctor arrived. Coincidentally, he was a Christian, and very passionate about sharing the gospel. The next hour was filled with him sharing stories of God’s faithfulness, and how He has worked in his life. Almost as if the Lord was preparing me for what was to come…

During the biopsy, which was quite painful, I joked with the doctor, who I knew from working in the hospital. I asked him, half serious, if he thought there was any chance this was cancer. He gave me no indication that anything was wrong, and actually took away any fear that I potentially had cancer. 

(This was me waiting for my biopsy and right after the biopsy)

Fast forward to now. My hands dropped the broom, and my eyes filled with tears as I tried to process what the doctor was saying. “It’s not lymphoma, which is good news. It is papillary thyroid carcinoma. I will be referring you to a general surgeon who will contact you next week.” 

Thanking her, I quickly hung up the phone, trying to process what I just heard. I had cancer. What? How could I have cancer? I exercise, eat relatively healthy, do not smoke, and rarely drink. “You have cancer” is not something any 25 year-old would ever expect or want to hear. As my mind ran through a thousand different scenarios, I did what I do best. I distracted myself. My husband Eric was having a great day, and was meeting with people, so I dared not call him. 

As I hopped in the car to go grocery shopping, I called the first person I thought of: my oldest sister Abby. If you have never met Abby, the best way I can simply describe her to you is with the following words: contagious joy. Abby has gone through a lot of hardship with childbearing, and has several children in heaven. But one of the many things I admire about her is her constant joy and trust in the Lord. Just a few months prior to this, as she was miscarrying a baby in the ER, she texted me and said: “The Lord give and the Lord take away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” 

The next week was filled with many phone calls and texts to loved ones, informing them that “no I’m not pregnant; I have cancer.” A classic Liz move, I told Eric ten minutes prior to us leaving for small group (I wanted to still go as I knew it would provide a much needed distraction). That night, after small group, we stopped by our dear friends Wil and Victoria’s house. They prayed for us, cried with us, and hugged us. Shortly after telling our friends and family about the diagnosis, I received a date for surgery. 

On March 29th, Dr. Applewhite, a general surgeon who specializes in Endocrinology, would perform a total thyroidectomy and a central and left neck cervical dissection. Since the cancer was in the surrounding lymph nodes, the plan would be to remove the thyroid, the lymph nodes underneath the thyroid, and the lymph nodes on the left side. Then a few months following the surgery, I would undergo radioactive iodine treatment, permanently removing any remaining thyroid tissue in my body that could potentially spread the cancer to other areas of my body. 

The next few weeks felt like a roller coaster of emotions. Some days I put on my big girl pants and went about my day. Other times I would lay in my bed, paralyzed with fear for what was to come. One blessing of these few weeks was my many long walks with God. Since the weather was starting to warm up, I would grab my headphones and head out for long walks along the Mohawk River. One song in particular became my cancer song. The song is called All in All/My Jesus by Capital City Music, for those who would like to check it out. During those walks, I vowed to God that I would always trust Him and love Him regardless of whatever I face in life. 

The week leading up to the surgery was filled with many phone calls going through pre-op stuff, surgery details, and of course a COVID-19 test. Praise God for the visit we were able to take to PA just two days before my surgery. Aside from the Lord, my one rock during this whole time was Eric. Although 2021 was a hard year for our marriage, going through cancer brought us closer together in ways I could never have imagined. 

On March 29, 2021, the alarm went off bright and early at 5:00 AM. My pre-op instructions were to arrive at the hospital at 6:00 AM for a 7:30 surgery. Naturally, every other surgical patient was instructed to arrive at 6:00 AM, so we proceeded to wait in a very long line. I was very much dreaming of coffee and sleep. For those who are familiar with Albany Medical Center, I had the privilege of having my surgery at the South Clinical Campus, which is a smaller campus of the main hospital. This gave me peace of mind, as I know far too many people that work at the main campus. 

“Elizabeth Diewald.” Finally, I thought. I proceeded to go by myself down the hall to an office where I was asked questions like, “what is your name and date of birth” and “when is the last time you’ve had anything to eat or drink?” I do not remember much of that conversation, but I remember somehow encouraging the lady at the desk. Or maybe she encouraged me. It’s now all a blur. After that I proceeded down the hall back to where Eric was. We were instructed to head up to the third floor to pre-op. By the time we arrived up there, it was past 7:00. The nurse quickly called me back, and said we were going to move things along so I could be ready for the OR by 7:30. 

The next 20 minutes were filled with more questions, a pregnancy test (which yes was negative), a chat with the anesthesiologist, an IV insertion, and a chat with Dr. Applewhite. The whole time I felt peace. Even when the anesthesiologist said that I HAD to receive general anesthesia and that he was going to use an extra-large breathing tube (because of the risk of nerve damage), I had peace. I even had peace while I laughed with the OR nurse, who came over and started some Precedex through my IV. For those who are not familiar, Precedex is a miracle drug. I used it a lot in the ICU on combative or withdrawing patients. It is a sedative, and can be titrated to just the right spot. I so wish I could use it many days on the Med-Surg floors.

(Just a few minutes before I got rolled into the OR)

The next few seconds, all I remember is being wheeled into the OR. I remember briefly waking up while I was in the PACU after the surgery was complete. Thanks to COVID, I had actually worked with my PACU nurse at the main campus earlier in the year. I remember being thrilled that she was my nurse, and excitedly asking about her baby (as she was still pregnant at the time). 

The rest of the day was foggy. My body does not enjoy any type of anesthesia or sedation. When I was not sleeping, I was interacting with what felt like the 10,000 people who came into my room, trying to fight the post-anesthesia nausea, and trying to respond to the many texts that had come through. Thanks to being intubated for five hours and having my face cut open, I decided not to make any phone calls that day.  After the surgery, I ended up in the short stay unit, where patients typically stay no more than one night. But thanks to major surgery, dehydration, and tons of nausea, I earned myself a stay two nights in the unit. And just in case you can not picture it, over 48 hours on a hospital stretcher is as bad as it sounds. 

(I do not even remember taking the first picture and the second was me trying to push through all the post-anesthesia nausea I was experiencing)

But despite how hard those two days were, I did not have much pain. Aside from a sore throat from being intubated and being sore at the incision site, I felt great. Nothing that a few doses of Tylenol and lots of ice can’t fix. Although I felt like I had a pressure ulcer on the back of my head and on both of my heels from laying in the same position for hours. To my delight, I recognized Nicole, who I used to work with in the ICU. She saw to it that I received everything I wanted for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. She is seriously the best. And I had a phenomenal day-shift nurse named Kris, who was the perfect balance of compassion and professionalism. My night shift nurse was good, although maybe woke me up one-too many times for Tylenol.

(Little did I know that I would spend over 48 hours on this stretcher)

Amidst all of the chaos, Dr. Applewhite had come in and explained how successful the surgery was. She spent over five hours removing all of the thyroid, and 30 of the surrounding lymph nodes. We would come to find out after the pathology report that 6 out of the 30 had cancer. Additionally, the cancer was only 2.5 mm, which is very tiny. She also took the surrounding parathyroid glands and “chopped them up into little pieces” in one of my muscles, so the body could re-absorb them. Parathyroid hormones regulate calcium, but thankfully my calcium never dropped below normal, even the day after the surgery. 

One thing I had not thought much about prior to my surgery, was the drain. The type of drain I had is called a Jackson-Pratt drain, and is a common drain for patients after abdominal surgeries. I have managed these drains a lot in my nursing career. But I never would have thought that I would have one hanging out of the left side of my neck. Dr. Applewhite said it was very close to my carotid artery. But thanks to a few sutures, she was not worried about it moving and penetrating my carotid artery. On Wednesday morning, the morning of my discharge, I was excited to have it removed. The drainage did not change color, which would have indicated a lymph leak if it did. But due to the high amount of volume coming out of the drain, Dr. Applewhite suggested we leave it in a few days, confident it would slow down in a day or two. 

Refusing to allow myself to be discouraged about going home with JP, I eagerly got dressed and reviewed my discharge paperwork. Refusing the free wheelchair ride out to the car, I slowly walked all the way out to the car, and even thought about driving home if it was not against the doctors orders. Don’t worry guys, Eric also would not have even thought about letting me drive. 

(The left is me finally being able to drink a latte, which I actually needed to do before I could go home. The right is us in the car after finally getting discharged!)

The next week was slow, which for those who know me, know I spend very little of my life doing anything slow. My parents came up and helped take care of me. Refusing to listen to my mother’s advice, I went to church on Sunday, which happened to be Easter Sunday. This was only six days after my surgery, so I was still very tired, and only able to be on my feet for a few hours before laying down. At this point, I was starting to get used to JP, but was very embarrassed to have a big bulge under my clothes when I was out in public. 

(Our friends Wil and Victoria got a puppy shortly before my diagnosis. Great therapy for healing! The picture on the left is the first time I was allowed to wash my hair in a real shower, as opposed to washing it over the side of the tub.)

The next few weeks were filled with lots of emotions. Frustration, anger, and anticipation were the emotions surrounding my drain. Relieved and amazed were the emotions surrounding my perfect pathology report. After another discouraging visit of Dr. Applewhite wanting to keep the drain in, we hopped in the car and drove to Ocean City, NJ for a few days. Those few days were exactly the type of relaxation and fresh air that we both needed. 

(JP came with me everywhere. Notice the bulge under my shirt in the picture on the left.)

(JP even came with me to Connecticut, where we purchased a new car.)

(And of course you better believe I went to the gym and went for runs with my drain in..Dr. Applewhite ensured me there was no risk for it dislodging and penetrating my carotid..)

Twenty-two days after my surgery, I had the drain removed. After going to Metabolic several times, and working a few shifts at the hospital, I decided it was now or never for JP to be removed. Dr. Applewhite was fearful she would have to go back in and explore why I was having so much drainage. She took the drain out on a Tuesday, and booked the OR for Friday. Determined to not go back for anymore surgery, I returned home and obeyed the strict orders of bedrest and not laying flat (anything to prevent the drainage from pooling in my neck and obstructing my airway). But praise God, my body returned back to normal after a few days, and Dr. Applewhite canceled the OR. To this day, I still hold the record for the longest a patient has ever had a drain in after that type of surgery. 

(The left is me right after she took the drain out, and the right is me at home keeping pressure on it.)

I will not bore you with the extensive details of the radioactive iodine treatment. But in June of 2021, I went on a three week diet of low-iodine. A low-iodine diet is no soy, dairy, or sea salt. It was very restrictive, and probably the worst three weeks of my life. But the purpose of the diet was to deprive my body of iodine, so when I received the treatment it would be more effective. And praise God it was! I was able to receive the lowest dose of the radioactive iodine, and only had to stay away from Eric for three days. My follow-up scans were perfect, and showed no evidence of any cancer left in my body. 

(I basically had to cook everything from scratch on my low-iodine diet. Smoothies were my go-to, in an attempt to keep my weight up.)

(The left is right after I received my dose of radioactive iodine. The right is my socially distant date with Victoria! I could not be within 3 feet of people for four days..)

(The day after I got out of “quarantine,” I headed to youth camp with our youth kids from church! 10/10 do not recommend that to anyone considering scheduling their life that way.)

These past few months have been routine monitoring. I alternate between seeing Dr. Applewhite and seeing Dr. Clark (my endocrinologist). They are both phenomenal, and have given me peace of mind in my recovery. I will have labs done every year for the rest of my life, and as long as the “tumor marker” remains undetectable, I will remain cancer free. 

(Celebrating finishing cancer treatment and getting my BSN. I completed my BSN the week of my radioactive iodine treatment.)

As I write this today, I am only a few weeks away from March 29, 2022. As I look back on the past year, I realize the Lord’s faithfulness and goodness. It could have been lymphoma. It could have been malignant. I could have been given weeks to live. But instead, it was the “best type of cancer”, and one that has the potential to stay in remission forever. 

A few verses that I clung to throughout this year is James 1:2-4 which says: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking in anything.” This is why I chose to get the word Perseverance, along with James 1:4 tattooed on my left shoulder blade. It is a constant reminder that when I persevere through this life, I will be with Jesus and will not be lacking in anything. 

If you made it this far, thank you for reading. I hope by sharing a small portion of my story that you are encouraged today and inspired to persevere through this hard life. Soli Deo Gloria. To God be the glory!

  1. Renee says:

    Liz, absolutely beautiful testimony. Wish I had 1/2 the faith that you have.
    God Bless, I love you,
    Renee

  2. Carolyn Berger says:

    Liz,
    Didn’t know all you experienced until reading your story. Thank you for sharing and being real about it all. Truly “to God be the glory for the great things He has done and is doing in your life”.

  3. Victoria says:

    Such an incredibly powerful story. You shared your thoughts, experiences and emotions with such clarity. You are a testimony of a child of God, trusting Him no matter what your circumstances!❤️

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