This cancer survivor wants you to know: You don’t always have to be strong
The same stack of papers has sat on Rita Hewell’s dresser since 2017. It includes dozens of pages of pathology reports, post-surgery instructions, blood test results. She calls it her cancer stack.
“I haven’t touched it. I can’t quite seem to make myself throw those papers away,” she said. “I think it just stirs up a really horrible time in my life.”
Several years ago, Rita was diagnosed with cancer. It started as a small spot in her thyroid. But by the time they caught it, the cancer had traveled to a lymph node. Doctors told her she would need surgery to remove her thyroid. Then she would have radioactive iodine treatment to destroy any cancer left in her body.
Immediately, Rita took on the role of the strong cancer warrior.
“When I talked to people at work, I was a little bit like, ‘No big deal. It’s just thyroid cancer,’” she said. “Some people, even those in the medical field, would say, ‘Oh, it’s the good kind of cancer. If you’re going to have cancer, thyroid cancer is the one you want.’ And I bought into it.”
As cancers go, most thyroid cancers are highly treatable. They often don’t require chemotherapy. So, Rita thought, she would just look on the bright side.
“I think I was trying to be okay for everybody. I was trying to be strong,” she said. “I didn’t want my kids to worry about me or my parents to worry about me. I just wanted everything to be okay.”
But inside, Rita was terrified. First there was the surgery, which required doctors to make a large incision on her neck. Then there was everything that came after: the scans, the treatments, the adjustment to life without a thyroid.
“When I came home from the hospital looking like I belonged on Criminal Minds, with a drain in my neck, that’s when I went, ‘Wait a minute. Wait a minute,’” she said. “’This isn’t normal anymore.’”
Rita could no longer ignore the fact that her life had changed overnight. It didn’t go back to normal after the surgery, either. Radioactive iodine treatment was a stark reminder that she was sick. She had to take a pill that was delivered to her in a metal box. Then she had to avoid close contact with others for several days for their own safety. She was even given a doctor’s note explaining the situation in case she set off the metal detectors at the airport.
Without a thyroid, she would also have to take medicine every day for the rest of her life to replace the hormone her body used to make. It changed her whole life, and no one seemed to understand.
“Thyroid issues can be an emotional struggle,” she said. “There’s the perception that you just take the thyroid out, you take medicine, and you’re good to go. Externally, you look okay. Internally, you can be totally ‘off’ energy-wise, metabolism-wise, emotionally.”
Then Rita found a safe place to process it all: a Facebook support group for thyroid cancer patients. There, she found others who understood what she was going through. They didn’t ask her to put on a brave face or find a silver lining. They just supported her in whatever she was feeling.
That group—and others like it—turned out to be a game-changer for Rita. Among people who understood her struggles, she could ask questions. She could gather resources and advice. Most importantly, she could acknowledge for herself that she had been through a serious medical trauma.
The stack of “cancer papers” on her dresser represents everything she has been through since 2017. And the friends in her online support groups understand why it’s so hard for her to go through those papers today, in 2021.
One thing that brings Rita encouragement is that she can now support others in their own cancer diagnoses.
“I want other cancer patients to know that they don’t have to try to tough it out,” she said. “Let yourself feel. Be angry. Cry. Be strong. Be weak. Give yourself permission to feel all the feelings. Give yourself time to heal. Everyone’s journey is different, so be kind to yourself, and reach out and help someone else on their journey, too.”