Some time ago, I mentioned that my dog Hento saved my life and I wanted to tell you all about it. I actually wrote out the story in late April, but I didn’t post it at that time because I wanted to give it a proof-and-tweak first. Unfortunately, almost immediately after I wrote it, my recovery took a nosedive into the toilet and the resulting brain fog left me incapable of reading, much less proofing, anything of that length.
Now it’s so much later that parts of what I wrote are no longer completely accurate, but I like the idea of presenting the post as-is, like a time capsule; this is where I was on April 28th, 2020.
So, uh, apparently I had cancer?
I figure there’s no delicate way to come at that.
For a very long time now, I’ve had chronic pain and nebulous health issues that it just wasn’t really worth it to me to get into with a doctor. (Tried before, was ignored/gaslit/told to simply lose weight, no answers, moving target, comes and goes, periods of no/poor health insurance, I can live with it, so on and etc.) But the thing about meeting my fantasy dream husband and starting our life together is that suddenly my health and mobility matter in a way they never mattered before – to me and to the fantasy dream husband.
After the wedding in the fall of 2018, when I finally had health coverage again, he begged me to get serious about finding a doctor and getting to the bottom of things. I agreed but put it off a while longer while I concentrated on publishing Mornnovin.
But then, through a series of cascading escalations, my body insisted that I pay attention. By the end of summer 2019, I was deep into physical therapy for Degenerative Disc Disease while trying to figure out why I’m always tired and in pain, why my body doesn’t want to digest anything I eat, and what the heck continues to be wrong with my liver despite my never having been a drinker and eating a fairly “clean” diet for decades. Oh and also what was up with this big squishy thing on my thyroid that had suddenly decided to start getting bigger.
We did all the tests and ran all the scans, but as far as my larger chronic issues go, that’s still a great big shrug. So glad I wasted even more time and money on that for nothing.
The problem is that… we can’t really nail down the problem. Blood panels get mildly weird but non-explanatory results, while imaging continues to show nothing wrong. Yeah, my thyroid was getting bigger and had some obvious nodes, but function was okay-ish, by the numbers? And the molecular tests were inconclusive?
As 2019 wound down with no answers, still, and other things on my mind (holidays, work, finances, mental health and some interpersonal stuff, and the upcoming fundraising push for my second book,) I put the whole thing on the back burner again for a while. I’ve been living with chronic pain and tiredness since 1997; a few more weeks or months off from tests and doctor’s visits didn’t feel like that big a deal.
But that frigging thing in my neck.
All along, in the course of monitoring the thyroid issue, my PCP had been asking if it hurt or made it hard to breathe or swallow. The answer had always been no. But sometime in January, I realized that that had changed and I couldn’t say exactly when. She ordered yet another ultrasound. It was into February before I could get in for it. Then it took a few more weeks for the results to come in and for my doctor to get back to me. I missed the call, repeatedly. (I am literally never awake at 9 a.m., Doctor. I’m sorry. That’s just not my schedule.) I’m bad about returning phone calls because I hate them.
Abruptly, one night in late February, my dog Hento completely changed his bedtime routine.
While he is very pack-oriented and loves to snuggle and hang out no more than a couple feet from us at all times during the day, Hento has always been somewhat solitary after he comes back into the house from his bedtime potty trip into the yard. I’m not sure about his reasons – maybe it’s literally just because he’s got a massive coat and it’s always a few degrees cooler downstairs than it is up in the bedroom – but when he comes in at bedtime, he has a little drink, asks for a cookie, gives me an affectionate headbutt to the thigh, then settles down into his preferred sleeping space between the accent chairs and the coffee table in the living room. His den, I call it. He is truly, deeply, a creature of habit.
So I began to be alarmed by the sixth or seventh night of Hento coming in at bedtime, performing the rest of his goodnight routine, and then sticking on me like glue when I went back upstairs. Refusing to leave my side as I got ready for bed. Not even waiting for me to settle under the covers before jumping up onto the bed and stretching himself out along the length of my left side. Staying there sometimes all night if he could bear it, or relocating to the floor next to my side of the bed if it got too hot for him after a while.
Hento never jumps on the bed, and certainly doesn’t sleep there.
By the time he’d been doing this for three weeks, the thing in my neck was choking me in my sleep and I had to admit that it was time to be serious about returning my doctor’s calls. COVID-19 had already upended things, but she found a slot for me to come in within two days. I absolutely took that as an ominous sign.
The visit was brief and to the point: the most recent ultrasound had shown that the node was even bigger than the last time we’d looked at it, on October 29th. It was sitting right against my trachea. She didn’t like it. She’d consulted with an endocrinologist who also didn’t like it. They both agreed we needed to get that thing out of there. When I shared the news that the thing was now choking me at night, she was alarmed and adamant: get it out now.
Even with everything non-essential shutting down due to the pandemic? I asked her.
She was perfectly steady and insistent on the subject: yes. Immediately.
This news was… Well, I didn’t like it. I’m sure no one likes being told they need surgery, but I’m autistic and I need time to adjust to change. Not gonna lie, I spent a week or so shellshocked and trying to ignore the situation.
But Hento kept sleeping way up in my shit, night after night. Not just at the foot of the bed, where there was room. On. me.
Meanwhile, the bastard thing in my neck kept choking me. I developed a honking, irritated cough from the pressure against my trachea. In the age of COVID-19, try having a loud, persistent, dry cough. There is no one it doesn’t frighten – including yourself. But apparently, neither my scans, my doctor’s urgent referral, my described symptoms, nor the awful awful sound of my cough over the phone was enough to convince the ENT to even look at my case.
“Don’t you realize we’re in the middle of a pandemic?” the surgeon’s people snapped at my husband over the phone. I could hear the angry condescension from across the room. Of course we do. This is at her doctor’s orders. “We’re not scheduling anything, just because you think your wife’s situation is important.” Blink. Her thyroid is slowly choking her to death. “Sir, if your wife is really choking, tell her to go to the ER!”
Jon wants to call them back now that I’m safe and inform the nasty woman on the phone that it was cancer, you assholes. I can’t say I blame him. She was really terrible.
Obviously, I did not want to go to the ER, and much of the time I talked myself out of the urgency of the situation. I told myself it might not come to that, if I could just wait until services and healthcare were functioning more like normal again. Sleeping was dicey, but somehow I could handle the realities of choking in my sleep better than the vague prospect of turning up at the ER for them to do… what exactly? My thyroid and I were playing a game of chicken and I can be very stubborn indeed.
But Hento kept on me 24/7. And I mean this guy was really keeping an eye on me. There was no pretending that he wasn’t worried. After a particularly bad night, on April 7th, I decided to have mercy on his poor tender heart; I went to the ER.
That was exactly as weird and horrible as you might imagine turning up at the ER in the middle of the COVID-19 lockdown to be – with a strange cough to boot. We were intercepted in the parking lot by people swathed in head-to-toe PPE, who screened me and told Jon to wait in the car. I passed through several layers of interrogations where I had to assure those asking that my cough was definitely not COVID-19 before they would let me further into the system. Every time I had to stop to cough because of the irritation to my trachea, I was scrutinized with suspicion. Finally, they ran some tests but ultimately declined to admit me because I did not meet their tightened criteria. (Plus side, we do now have a very nice CT scan of the DDD in my neck.) They did, however, send me off with a fresh list of different ENTs to try calling, if the first one was refusing to see me.
I guess there’s something about the aura of saying you’re calling from an ER referral, because we finally hit paydirt – an ENT willing to speak to me and even schedule a tele-visit. Even luckier, after this guy looked at my scans, he didn’t like them either.
Even so, he wasn’t optimistic that the OR scheduler would put me down any time soon, just because of resource allocation as healthcare in Pennsylvania braced itself for the outbreak. He absolutely did want to get the chokey thing out of my neck as soon as possible, he just couldn’t say when that would be. He advised me to hunker down and manage my symptoms as well as I could and he’d try to get back to me before the end of the month. Two days later, on April 9th, I got a phonecall asking if I could do surgery on the 16th.
Holy crap when things start moving they really move. Honestly, that gave me some emotional whiplash that kept me dazed just about until the day of surgery. (Which was three days after my birthday, by the way. I know just about everyone has had a weird birthday experience in 2020, but that was extra.)
To abruptly end an already long story, the surgeon was planning to remove only the left thyroid lobe, but when he got in there he ended up taking it all. Everything. The whole thyroid and a couple of nearby lymph nodes to be safe. It looked bad, I guess. The pathology report, a few days later, confirmed his instincts.
How do I feel about this?
Well, we’ve already followed the recommended course of treatment for this type of cancer: full thyroidectomy. That’s that, case closed. So honestly, I just feel vindicated after the first surgeon’s office implied I was being an attention-seeking drama queen trying to tie up needed resources during an international health crisis.
Also, enlightened. That’s why Hento was so freaked out. Cancer’ll do that. Dogs have amazing sniffers.
Trying not to get up in my feelings about having an ongoing condition now (no thyroid) that will require medication for the rest of my life.
I’m still dealing with some choking for the moment, unfortunately, as I wait for the swelling to go down. But at least now I know I will stop choking. I don’t have to be scared anymore that the thing in my neck might squeeze the life out of me while I’m sleeping. And Hento can relax.
He slept on me when I came home from the hospital all woozy and sporting a nasty neck wound, and he slept on me the two nights after that. But I am pleased to report that apparently I’m now healthy enough for Hento to be back to spending the night in his little den in the living room between the accent chairs and the coffee table. That’s how you know I’m on the mend.
Really, I only wrote all of this out because I wanted you to understand that Hento saved my life. I absolutely would have kept pretending that the thing in my neck wasn’t that big a deal and would have tried to wait it out until it killed me. Hento was the one who convinced me I was really in trouble. Dogs don’t know how to bullshit you, not about stuff like this.
He was scared, and he told me so, and I’m cancer-free today because I listened to him.
Tuesday, April 28th, 2020