Courtesy Christine Coppa
“I will need to open your neck to remove the tumor and your thyroid,” the surgeon told me on a hot summer day. The words turned into white noise. I felt all alone in that office, with my legs dangling from the exam table.
“So, a scarlet letter across my neck, then?” I sarcastically asked.
The doctor, with kind eyes, smiled.
His assistant chimed in: “Don’t worry, the incision and closure is like his signature. Just like you want a perfect scar, he wants to give you one. You’ll barely see it,” she said, resting her hand on my shoulder.
It kind of made sense. If my neck had a big, gross scar on it, it would be a reflection of the doctor’s work.
I found some comfort in that.
This was back in 2014. At first, I had thought I was dealing with Springtime allergies, but, in fact, all of my symptoms turned out to be thyroid cancer.
I learned I needed two neck surgeries and radiation. The first surgery was to remove the large, 4-centimeter tumor that covered the entire right lobe. My surgeon tried to spare the left lobe since it could still work alone to control my metabolism, heart rate, body temperature, mood and every other important function carried out by a healthy thyroid.
I appreciated his gesture: he was trying to save me from a lifetime of medication. But, pathology from the tumor and right lobe proved I had a follicular variant of papillary carcinoma. I would need to have my neck reopened to remove the left lobe.
Hearing the word “cancer” was the first jolt, but reckoning the surgeon would have to cut the front of my neck open—during two invasive surgeries was a lot to swallow.
I was relieved to learn that thyroid cancer can be treated if caught early, but I wasn’t thrilled it would mean a lifelong scar front and center on my neck.
I googled “thyroid cancer surgery scar” and was presented with page upon page of neck images: Necks with red and purple, raw lines, closed with stitches or glue. Necks with flabby scar skin. Necks with multiple scars…it was enough to make me slam my MacBook shut, as anxiety pulsed through my veins. In the mirror, I admired my neck and collarbone, running my finger across a delicate gold chain I wore. Then a tiny voice: “Mommy!” I jumped in a startle.
My then five-year-old son, Jack, appeared in the mirror behind me. Our reflection was a big reality check. See, my son didn’t know I had been diagnosed with the Big C, or that I was having surgery. I planned on telling him an abbreviated version closer to the actual procedure.
I’m a single mom, Jack lives with me 24/7, and doesn’t have a relationship with his father. I’m his hero. I’m the good and the bad cop. I’m the homework helper, nurse, chef, backyard adventurer, soccer mom, therapist, taxi driver, and every other variation of parent. I knew I couldn’t wimp out over cancer or some scar on my neck—I’m this kid’s life!
So I did the next best thing I could think of: I made an appointment to get my hair done a few days before the first surgery. I asked my colorist for an ombré effect, where the hair at my roots was darker, gradually lightening up to a bright, happy blond at the ends. My goal was simple: Golden hair to frame my scar. If I couldn’t hide it, might as well, show it off.
I never had any intentions of hiding the scar. Not only am I a mostly plain-Jane type who wears minimal makeup and prefers to sneakers to heels any day, I didn’t want my son to think my scar was something to be ashamed of. I’m his role model and I needed to set a good example. Bad things can happen, but it’s how you deal with them that matter.
When I woke up from my surgery, I had a drain in my neck. Dark stitches and a bright red line with Steri-Strips was revealed to me in a hand-held makeup mirror my mom reluctantly handed over. Seeing the raw line gave me pause, but knowing the surgeon removed the cancerous tumor was a relief. My survival rate would be 90 percent after five years in remission—a feat I managed this very year!
Courtesy Christine Coppa
The Steri-Strips and stitches remained for two weeks. The area needed to breathe, so there was no obvious bandage or ointment—and I wasn’t allowed to wrap a pretty scarf around my neck.
The recovery process, bearing it all, in the grocery store, out to dinner with family and on the summer camp pickup line, made me realize, if I could get through this phase, I could bear the scar of survival forever. All that time, running around doing errands, only one person asked: a man. “Did you have a treach?” (Meaning tracheotomy, an emergency procedure performed when your airway is suddenly blocked.) “Nope, thyroid cancer survivor,” I said. Hearing the word, “survivor” tumble from my lips empowered me.
When my surgeon removed the Steri-Strips, the line was still raw and pink. I never thought to cover it up with makeup or apply a cream that might dull the scar. Plus, it was time for my second surgery. The good news: My surgeon was opening my neck in the same spot to avoid two scars. Plus the procedure was under an hour and I only needed to spend one night in the hospital.
The experience of being treated for cancer is heavily ingrained in my person and so whether or not it came with a visible scar, front and center on my neck, I’ll always own what happened to me over the course of 2014 and 2015.
It took some time to reckon this, but there is Christine before cancer—and now there’s Christine after. After comes with a scar.
The scar proves I looked fear in the face and prevailed. If I got through that — I can get through the next 15 minutes, land on my feet and live boldly!
Another bonus: People, mostly women, will ask about my scar even though it’s a very thin, dull line five years later. That means I have the opportunity to educate others about thyroid cancer and how they should self-check their neck for lumps and bumps, plus remind their doctor to do same, at yearly physicals. You’ll also want to educate yourself about the 15 most common cancer symptoms women ignore.
The scar is like a superhero stamp. I’m a cancer crusader.