New York, NY - 1992
The first time I found out I had cancer was over the phone. I was a college student at NYU working at a law office at night and my doctor called me. “Ms. Norling, your pathology came back: it’s cancer. My nurse will call you for a follow up appointment tomorrow.” I sat there stunned. I left work early. A colleague joined me when I stepped in the elevator. I must have had tears in my eyes because he asked me if I was alright. “I have cancer,” I told him. “Oh,” he said.
I had thyroid cancer – technically a papillary-follicular variant of thyroid cancer. I know, I know. As I would be told hundreds of times after my diagnosis, “if you’re going to get cancer, thyroid cancer is the one to get.” Sometimes I felt lucky and sometimes not so much. Granted, twenty plus year later, I’m still here and I’m cancer free. So, do I feel lucky? Absolutely!
Lexington, KY - 2000
In 1998, I moved to Lexington, KY to pursue my PhD at the University of Kentucky. I had already divorced my husband and was looking forward to beginning my studies in health communication. I was getting blood work done every six months, as directed. So far, so good. There was no evidence of my cancer returning. I was flying to New York City for follow up appointments, which was getting expensive; it had to stop.
One random morning in April of 2000, I woke up and a voice in my head said, “get to the doctor.” I had no symptoms beyond being a little tired which I attributed it to being a PhD student. We were all exhausted. Overall, I was feeling fine. My blood work was normal. Still, the voice was strong. To this day, I believe it was my older brother, Chris. He had died a few years earlier and I’ve always felt his presence. I have always had a lot of angels around me, but Chris was my big brother and he always had my back when he was alive. Apparently, that hadn’t changed. Years later I would tell this story to other physicians and every one of them said they couldn’t explain it, either. Whatever the explanation, I called the University of Kentucky Markey Cancer Center the next day. I needed to find a specialist who treated thyroid cancer. There was one. One! I thought, “Oh, Lord. Where am I? There’s only one doctor to choose from? Heaven help me.” Come to find out, he was one of the leading thyroid cancer doctors in the country. Once again, I was in the right place at the right time and the right people appeared in my life. To this day, I can’t explain the moment I knew the cancer was back, but I am grateful and blessed that I did.
When I met with him, we talked about my history with thyroid cancer. I explained that I had had two surgeries to remove both lobes of my thyroid, however, I had never been treated with I-131 radioactive iodine. He was furious, not at me, but at my medical team. It made absolutely no sense to him that I had not received the standard treatment for thyroid cancer the first time around.
He ordered the same blood work that I had been having done for the past seven years that had shown that everything was normal. He ordered nuclear scans to see what, if anything, was going on. I remember going into his office with my mom. She was in town to go with me when I got my results.
The cancer was back. It had spread to my lungs. I was in shock. My mom was in shock. I had no symptoms, at least, nothing that would suggest something was wrong. The blood work still came back normal. I asked how that could be. He explained that a small percentage of the population doesn’t respond to those tests. He said that by the time anything showed up, it would likely be too late to do anything for me. In fact, he said that if we hadn’t found the cancer when we did, the prognosis would not be very good at all. The cancer was spreading. The hope was, because the metastases were only a “light dusting,” that the cancer would respond to aggressive treatment. I was Stage 4.
Gulfport, MS - 2020
When I was in my early 50’s, I started bleeding heavily. I had never quite made it to the other side of menopause. It was hit and miss so I didn’t think much of it. I mentioned it to my primary care doc at the time and he didn’t pursue it, so I just dealt with it. I believe most physicians attributed it to my being obese. Given that was always the response to any medical issue I had, I suspect that was the case here.
A few years later, I found myself bleeding so badly that I had to put towels and pads on our bed because I would bleed through everything at night. One day I bled so heavily at work that the bathroom looked like a crime scene. There was blood everywhere. Sitting on the toilet, I could feel the blood clots falling out of me. Some were the size of golf balls. I cleaned it up, called my husband and he met me at the emergency room. At some point, my gynecologist performed a biopsy (it was negative) and treated me with progesterone. The bleeding stopped for a year.
We moved to Gulfport, MS for a new job in April 2020. Covid had just started to emerge. The bleeding started again. I had to find a new primary care doctor and during our first appointment, I mentioned the bleeding. He jumped on it. I underwent a D & C. The hospital pathology lab said they thought it was ok but there were a few suspicious cells. They sent it off to the University of Michigan pathology lab. Endometrial Cancer – Stage 1A. Not again. Who gets cancer three times? I was stunned.
Today, I feel exceptionally blessed that I’m still here. I owe so much to family, friends, and my medical teams who helped me along the way. Now, I am humbled to share my journey with you with a sincere hope that it might help you on yours.
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