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Natalie's Story

'I Can Pursue My Dreams'

Natalie Cericola

By Natalie Cericola

When you are in your early 20s, there are so many things you plan for yourself. Moving out of your parents’ house, buying a new car, graduating college, and much more. Having cancer is not one of them.

The day I found my nodule was like any other day. I found my thyroid cancer on my own in my mirror. I was concerned when I first found the lump, of course not thinking too much into it. So I went to my physician to have it checked out. My family physician told me the lump could be numerous things, cancer being one of them. Of course, I had the mentality of "Oh no, that's not me," because that is what we all would think. "Cancer happens to everyone other than yourself."

That is what I thought until I was driving to my work on my 22nd birthday — April 5, 2016. It was about 11 in the morning when my whole world was completely turned upside down. I stopped, and the whole world around me vanished at that very moment. Every single ounce of oxygen was sucked out of my lungs, and the color of my skin faded. As I sat in my car with question marks circling around my head I made some phone calls. I needed to express the deep pain I was enduring; the utter shock was unbearable, and I immediately thought my life was over. My body was not mine anymore. I had no say in it. My body was taken over by an aggressive disease that wanted to kill me. There was something inside me, growing, wanting to take my life, and there was nothing I could do to prevent it.

'The one'

After you cry and wonder why, the next step was figuring out what to do next. My physician referred me to a general surgeon at my local hospital. Going into that consultation, I was ignorant. I was unsure on how this kind of thing should be handled, surgery and all. I was told my scar would be 4 inches long, and I would have drainage packets and stitches, radiation without a doubt and a few days in the hospital. A few words here and there, and that was it. I figured, "Great. Let's do this, and get it over with!" That was until my mom decided to take one step back, slow things down for me and seek a second opinion. That was when Rush University Medical Center came into play.

I had my consultation with an endocrinology surgeon, Dr. Katherine Heiden. Dr. Heiden came strutting into the examination room with so much confidence and grace it was beyond comforting. She sat me and my parents down and gave me a full ultrasound of my neck. Dr. Heiden took some measurements and went from there.

She discussed how thyroidectomies work and what it entails. She explained to me I would have a 3-centimeter scar with some "human glue," Dermabond, to seal me up and that was it. After showing me some pictures of her work, I was amazed by how tiny the scars were that she provided. I was also amazed that she had done an ultrasound and explained in full detail how the surgery may go and what the next steps after surgery would be.

Dr. Heiden also explained that radioactive iodine may be required, depending on the tumor characteristics, presence of lymph nodes and what the pathology report reveals. That is when I knew she was "the one." Dr. Heiden specialized in the surgery I needed, and with her I was provided a care team. Finding out I had a team to work with me and my cancer journey as opposed to a single general surgeon left me feeling remarkably safe.

'Loving me and saving me'

The day of surgery  — June 8, 2016 — I would probably say was the scariest day of my life. One of my major organs was being taken from me through a slit in my throat. I was given a gown and other necessities to prepare me for surgery. As I lay in the hospital bed with family by my side, in walked a whole team of doctors. One by one, like a casting call. I went from terror to awe. The smiling faces and warmth from each and every doctor created a trust within me in seconds. It was the most beautiful thing I have ever been able to experience. These doctors were just meeting me and had my life in their hands, and I could not be any more comfortable. As I was wheeled into the operating room, my hands were held and I felt this sense of love, like my mother was there in the room with me. The doctors joked and laughed with me like and calmed me down like I never thought anyone ever could. I cannot put into words what that feeling was like other than absolutely beautiful. Then, that was it. I was out. Into the darkness while my vulnerable, cancerous body was given to a group of people loving me and saving me. Taking control of something I couldn't.

While in surgery, 18 lymph nodes were removed, 17 containing cancer, along with my entire thyroid gland.

I woke up in a dark place, blinded without my eyeglasses and relieving illness onto my gown. I was incoherent and weak while a nurse rushed to my assistance and reclothed me. The nurse brought me my eyeglasses and cleaned me, aided me and loved me. I do not even know her name, but I knew she loved me. I was then carried off into my own room, where I was greeted by another nurse who held me while I vomited, cleaned my sweat of my face and neck while I wailed in pain after a long surgery, and loved me as well. After I gave her the OK to send in some family members, they all came rushing in like they haven't seen me in years — all 13 of them.

It was bedtime and that is about when my legs decided to give out.. The pain was numbing, yet sharp. I ached in pain through the night while hooked to IVs that needed to be unhooked every 30 minutes that I needed to be taken to the bathroom. Almost every hour I needed medication and blood tests, so sleep wasn't part of my schedule. But you better believe that every moment I wanted to cry, I smiled. And that is all due to my incredible family and, of course, Rush hospital.

During my extended care at Rush, Dr. Heiden visited me and explained to me what happened, what was taken out, and what was to be going on in my future. Because she is a specialist, she knew during my surgery exactly what looked suspicious and decided to take it all out of me. After an extended surgery and cancer that metastasized into the lymph nodes in my neck, Dr. Heiden confirmed that I would have to go through radioactive iodine treatment.

'Filled with joy'

When you have thyroid cancer, radiation is a bit different. My specific radiation treatment is called radioactive iodine treatment, which requires a 21-day diet beforehand that restricts you from consuming anything that contains salt. This is because if my body had any added iodized salt, the radiation would attach to the salt instead of the remaining cancer cells. After the diet, I was injected with Thyrogen, a protein designed to be identical to natural human thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH).  Thyrogen is a prescription medication given in two injections by a health care provider prior to radioactive iodine ablation or diagnostic testing in patients with well-differentiated thyroid cancer. After my injections, it was time for my radiation treatment.

Aug. 16, 2016, was the day I started my radiation. During treatment I was quarantined to keep people away from me, because I radiated radioactive properties from my body which could harm people. My doctor said to me that my radiation was comparable to someone sleeping next to me for eight hours, that person would be exposed to 10 full body scans! As I lay in bed, alone for a week, I was in pain, face swollen and sore as my salivary glands burned away. I was nauseated, weak, and miserable. Having your system shocked by a nuclear medicine is pretty intense to think and feel, and I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy.

I was completely contaminated. The toilet was flushed three times after use, I could not use disposable products, and if I did, I would have to leave them outside for seven days before disposing because of the amount of radiation radiating from my waste could set off radiation detectors at a landfill. My bedding needed to be cared for properly and of course, I had to stick to my strict diet. No one could be less than 6 feet from me, so everyone stayed clear. I had to carry around a doctor's note with me explaining that I went through radiation treatment because I would set off radiation detectors in federal buildings, police vehicles, and even a baseball stadium.

After treatment, next came the full body scan. This scan shows where the radiation uptake was and would determine if the cancer has spread to my lungs and bones. Waiting for those test results was bringing back so many bad memories of wondering if I had cancer. I thought to myself, "Oh no, there could be more and worse?" The wait was terrifying. Luckily, there was no spread of cancer to my lungs and bones. There was some uptake in my thymus, which is not uncommon and not life-threatening, so I was not overly concerned by it. I was shell-shocked: filled with joy and the happiness to survive!

During the rest of my journey I had another doctor with me, Dr. Brian Kim, a five-star endocrinology specialist who is beyond professional, pays attention to fine detail, and is keen on his expertise. Dr. Kim paired with my surgeon as they prepared me to fight off this disease.

'I have my life back'

What's next? I am more than one year post my radioactive iodine treatment. I'm not completely out of the woods yet, and I am not sure if I will ever be. But with Rush University Medical Center and my care team by my side, I can and will accomplish anything in my path.

When having your thyroid removed, there are numerous side effects. My body completely changed and became unrecognizable to me. My hair changed, my skin changed, my teeth changed, my weight changed, along with my moods. Very important things changed as well. My heart began to palpitate, my brain was not functioning like it used to. My brain developed this term called "brain fog" which caused me to forget what I was doing or saying in any moment. I would stop myself and find myself staring off into space as if I was frozen. My memory is lost, short and long term. I have completely changed as a person, the person I knew, inside and out. My teeth began to decay from radiation, my body aches and shook from low calcium levels. My whole body felt uncontrollable.

I felt as though I was finding out new things about myself — starting to adapt while trying to keep my mental stability strong. I failed to realize that once a major organ was taken from my body, that it would affect all the other organs and the hormones in my body. Months passed as my medication began to stabilize once we found the right medication strength. My body then became my own again.

What I have learned from this continuing experience is that cancer does not care who you are, what you do, or how young or old you are. Cancer takes hold of your body and wants to destroy you. I was once told that "Cancer does not cripple love, it cannot shatter hope, it cannot corrode faith. It cannot eat away peace and it cannot suppress good memories. It cannot silence courage, it cannot invade the soul. Cancer cannot steal eternal life, and it cannot conquer the spirit." No one decides to have cancer, but one does decide to take hold of it and do the best that can to take their life back. And because of Rush University Medical Center, I have my life back. I can conquer the world, I can pursue my dreams, and I can carry on with my 20s like I planned to before my diagnosis. I cannot thank my team and this hospital more for what they have done for me. There are not enough thank yous in the world. Rush University Medical Center is my hero and my forever home.