‘I Was Radioactive’: Here’s What It’s Really Like to Get Treated for Thyroid Cancer

“Coppa,” a voice called.

“Ready?” he asked.

I looked at him like he was a crazy person for expecting me to ingest what he was so cautiously avoiding. But taking I-131 was hopefully the last step of treatment for thyroid cancer. (Heal your whole body with Rodale’s 12-day liver detox for total body health.)

A Surprise Diagnosis

I found out that I had cancer in 2014, when my internist felt a lump in my neck at a routine physical. She grabbed my hand and slid it over the suspicious mass; it felt like a big, juicy grape.

A series of tests—including blood work, an ultrasound, a CT, a fine-needle biopsy, and a laryngoscopy—confirmed that the lump really was cancer. Up until I heard the word “cancer,” the laryngoscopy was the worst part: The spray numbing agent wasn’t foolproof, and it felt like a piece of wire feeding slowly into my nose, down my throat.

Like many young women, I routinely checked my breasts for lumps but never gave much thought to my thyroid. But this gland is actually pretty important, since it produces hormones that help regulate heart rate, body temperature, mood, metabolism, and a zillion other bodily functions. No one knows why I got thyroid cancer at 33, though getting tons of x-rays as a teenager (I needed a spinal fusion to correct an aggressive case of scoliosis) might have had something to do with it.

I ended up having two surgeries, one to remove the four-centimeter tumor and right side of my thyroid and a second procedure to remove the rest of the gland. The recovery wasn’t terrible: I had a small slit in the center of my neck, it was a little irritating to swallow, and I only had to spend a few days in the hospital. But emotionally, I was a wreck. As I watched the drip-drip-drip of the IV bag, I wondered if the doctors had gotten all of the cancer. They didn’t.

Tests revealed that my surgeries had left behind some thyroid cells, and I also had a spot on my chest. I tried not to panic, but I immediately thought of The Fault in Our Stars. “Crap,” I thought. “I’m going to die or need an oxygen tank.”

My son, Jack, was only 7 at the time, and I’m a single mom. (Read about my life-changing pregnancy in Rattled! A Memoir.) I also had a new golden retriever puppy, Lucy. What would happen to them?

Thyroid cancer is often called a “good” cancer because it has a five-year survival rate of nearly 100 percent if it’s caught early. I had stage 1, so the odds were in my favor.

With my thyroid gone, my doctor started me on Synthroid, which is a synthetic hormone that mimics the hormone that’s naturally made by the thyroid gland. But it takes time for Synthroid to sink into your system, and getting the dosing right isn’t easy. When my dose was too low, I felt bloated, cold, and depressed. But if you take too much, you can end up sweaty and anxious and develop an irregular heartbeat.

Meanwhile, I had to prep for radiation. Iodine is essential for the natural production of thyroid hormone, so I was put on a low-iodine diet to starve my body of this element. (When iodine is reintroduced through radioactive iodine treatment, it kills remaining thyroid tissue and cancer cells.) I also needed injections of a drug called Thyrogen and a full-body scan to determine how much thyroid tissue and how many cancer cells were still in my body. Finally, I was ready for the last step.


I stared at the white pill in the shot glass–size cup, cringed, and said, “Bottoms up.” Then the technician made me drink an 8-ounce bottle of water.

“Go straight home,” he said. “By the time you get there, you’ll be able to set off alarms in airport security lines or alert authorities something radioactive is traveling through the Lincoln Tunnel.”

I laughed, but he was serious. I was dangerous to others, including Jack and Lucy. They had already gone to live at my father’s home for five days.

I drove home to my apartment while listening to “Radioactive” by Imagine Dragons—I needed to find some humor in the situation. When I got to my front door, I put on plastic blue surgical gloves before touching the handle and entering the place where my child played with Legos and ate his meals. I felt explosive.

I had already stocked up on supplies, including cheap underwear, bedding, and pajamas from Wal-Mart. I planned to throw them out in a doubled-up garbage bag instead of washing them twice with hot water and detergent per my doctor’s instructions. Maybe if I didn’t have a young son, I wouldn’t have been so paranoid about contamination.

I drank what seemed like buckets of spring water in those first hours—it’s important to stay hydrated and also flush out your body frequently. When I had to use the bathroom, I knew I was supposed to cover the seat with paper and flush twice. I decided to flush three times while wearing blue surgical gloves. My son would soon use the same bathroom—we only have one—and I couldn’t be too careful.

At 2 a.m. I woke up suddenly and knew the I-131 had kicked in; it felt like someone punched me in my neck. I got up to use the bathroom and caught my reflection in the vanity mirror. My face and neck were bloated and swollen.

Within 12 hours of treatment, I had to start sucking on sour hard candy. The goal was to make my salivary glands secrete some of the radioactive iodine they might have picked up, because this would supposedly help my neck feel less sore. I never want to eat or even see a lemon drop again.

Everyone experiences radiation treatment differently. For the first 24 hours, my eyes, neck, and head hurt—and I dry-heaved. I couldn’t stomach food for at least 48 hours, so I stuck to water and ginger ale.

Living in Isolation

To pass the alone time, I decided to watch Showtime’s Weeds on Netflix. Soon I was dying to find out what was next for Nancy Botwin and her dysfunctional family.

Speaking of family, my dad completely ignored the quarantine rule and showed up at my apartment. I heard the key twisting in the door, and I yelled at him from bed to stay back. He asked if I was OK from the hallway and told me he brought over a strawberry frozen yogurt shake. “Leave it on the carpet in the hallway,” I said. “You can’t be here.”

He stayed for a few minutes to chat, and when he left I retrieved the shake. I retreated back to my bed and the adventures of Nancy Botwin. As a single mom, I rarely get to be alone, so I found a silver lining in radiation treatment: I could relax and let my guard down. This was the first time in forever that I didn’t have to wake up at 6 a.m. to walk my dog or make my son a waffle.

My free days were numbered, though. My energetic little boy and puppy would be coming home soon, and I had a lot to do to prepare. The day before Jack and Lucy came back, I found myself nonchalantly spraying the kitchen floor with water from the sink hose in my underwear, a tank top, and flip-flops. Next, I splattered some pure bleach onto the tiles and pushed the mop around.

I used an all-purpose bleach cleaner to scrub the kitchen counters and outside of the fridge. I steam-cleaned the carpet and spent an hour bleaching the bathroom as if I were covering up a murder scene. I gathered the linens, clothing, and towels I used during my quarantine and double-bagged them in heavy black garbage bags. I did the same with the garbage bin in my room and tossed it down the garbage chute.

I sprayed my mattress with an entire can of Lysol and washed all my furniture with a bleach solution. I was lucky it was wintertime. Crisp, cold air circulated through the apartment, ridding it of the harsh chemical smell. I imagined that it was also sucking out all the radiation, even though I knew that was BS.

Returning to a New Normal

Right before my son came home, I showered and washed my hair. I put on workout clothes and swiped some bronzer and blush on my face to camouflage my pale skin and the dark circles under my eyes.

Jack and Lucy came bursting through the door. “Just be careful of mommy’s neck,” I said as he wrapped his arms around me. I smelled his cookie-puppy-shampoo smell and smiled. Lucy had jumped up on the couch and was uncontrollably wiggling her butt like she hadn’t seen me in 15 years.

The reunion was wonderful and made my home whole again, but I was still cautious over the next few days. I asked my dad to cook meals for Jack, flushed the toilet three times after each use, and used an all-purpose bleach cleaner on every surface, all the time. Jack was frustrated that I wouldn’t play Legos with him, but I didn’t want to touch the colorful plastic blocks.

About 10 days later, I was back at the hospital for an hour-long whole-body scan, which determined that the radiation worked. The spot on my chest was—poof—gone.

Two years later, I identify as a cancer survivor, even though I won’t be considered in full remission until I reach the five-year mark. Until then, I have to go for a big scan every year, get ultrasounds twice a year, and give my weight in blood to make sure no cancer cells are creeping around. In 2015 I had a fine-needle biopsy because something showed up on an ultrasound. It wasn’t cancer, but waiting to hear those words was excruciating.

Some thyroid cancer survivors hide their scars with a scarf, but I don’t. I consider it a badge that shows where I’ve been and what I am capable of overcoming. It’s a reminder that I can look fear in the face—and beat it.


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