Sunrise in Chicago

We woke at three a.m. and packed the car as the chimes on the porch danced in a frigid mid-winter wind. The stars glinted in the frosty night air as the wheels of the van buzzed over miles of glistening black tar, through the lavendar dawn in Madison and the blustery mid-morning across the tundra of northern Illinois. Chicago loomed beyond the toll booths and sluggish, exhaust-spewing crush of traffic. The skyline stretches for a mile along the southern horizon, cloaked in a white smog as the cold atmosphere pushes the city's fumes back in on her. The skyscrapers were coated in Jack Frost fingers of salt and ice, and signs everywhere along the Miracle Mile warned of ice falling from 30 stories above.

Hearty Chicagoans marched by to a rapid beat, smothered in furs of every color, wool caps, scarves, hands jammed deep in pockets and shoulders hunched. A few inches of flesh was all we saw of the natives as we approached the University of Chicago on the south end of the downtown stretch. Nestled in a quaint old neighborhood, it's hewn block buildings rising warmly to snow-capped rooftops a few stories off the ground, the campus bustling with metropolitan androgeny. A stoic, long-strided professor dressed in 1980's teal coat and too-short cordorouy pants stuck out as a comic splash against the backdrop of beige, black and gray modernity.

It is hard to imagine traveling to this place for healing. Purposefully leaving field and fauna and crystal star-lit night behind to enter swirling, fuming metropolis in search of hope and health.

Our little entourage: Aaron, Caleb, my mom, Alison York and I. Concerned companions, me jittery, clinging desperately to whatever semblance of peace I could muster. We traveled to the Windy City to seek a 2nd opinion from Dr. Roy Weiss, the inventor of Synthroid (the replacement hormone I take to treat my cancer) and a leading national expert on my particular type of cancer, follicular variant papillary thyroid carcinoma (FV-PTC for short!). This was the first time I met with a doctor who had treated multiple people with my rare variant form of thyroid cancer, so I was very excited to hear his opinion on my treatment plan. The visit was wonderful - he was an excellent, knowledgeable and warm doctor who instantly gained the confidence of all of us as he talked in detail about my type of cancer, speaking from both a medical research perspective as well as a personal experience perspective. Here is a synopsis of what we learned:
  • Our treatment of the cancer has been excellent so far: I had the surgery at Mayo, which was the right choice, but chose to leave Mayo to seek alternative treatment at Luther in Eau Claire, receiving radioactive iodine quickly, within 6 months of my surgery. Both of these choices were good ones. Dr. Weiss listed off at least 5 reasons why I definitely needed the iodine treatment, which was reassuring to me as I went against the advice of Mayo doctors to get the treatment.
  • My positive tumor markers and thyroglobulin tests are not as dire as I have previously been told. Because these levels were from BEFORE the iodine treatment, there is a very high likelihood that the iodine killed whatever cancer or remaining thyroid tissue was producing the tumor markers and thyroglobulin found in my bloodstream in October.
  • It is unlikely that I will need more iodine in the future, as the dose I received was appropriate. It is also even more unlikely that I will need chemo or other treatment, as it is highly unlikely that the cancer spread outside of my neck region. Dr. Weiss was the first doctor who was able to reassure us that my cancer is slow-growing, even though it is a variant, so since I received prompt treatment (surgery, then iodine within 6 months) it is unlikely that the cancer cells had "time" to spread outside of my neck. This is good news because cancer in the neck is much easier to treat with the traditional iodine approach, and rarely requires systemic treatment of any kind (chemo or external beam radiation).
  • My outlook is very good. Dr. Weiss reassured us, to quote him, "you will be here to celebrate your children's wedding days, and the wedding days of their children's children!" He fully expects that I will be in full remission within 3 years, although recurrence is still a possibility because of how young I was when I got the cancer.
  • The one sobering note: I won't be considered "cancer free" for 5 years, and won't be considered "in remission" until I have had three whole body scans accompanied by ultrasound and lab tests that indicate NO CANCER CELLS (or thyroglobulin or tumor markers) present. The scans will take place every 6-12 months depending on the discretion of my doctor here in Eau Claire, so that means I won't be able to consider myself in remission until 18 months-3 years from now. Since waiting is so difficult, it promises to be a more difficult three years than any of us had anticipated just a few months ago. In addition, Dr. Weiss, as well as all the doctors I've spoken to before him, warned me that it is not uncommon to find "something" on either ultrasound or lab tests that may indicate cancer. Therefore, it can often take longer than the 3 years to reach "remission" status. These "false alarms" usually turn out to be nothing other than a few worrisome months as the next round of tests 6 months later usually indicate no change.
We danced into the lobby, bursting with the first reliable good news in months. Cell phones chattered alive under our briskly tapping fingers as we giddily called family and friends to give a good report! We sallied into the swirl of evening leave-takings in downtown Chicago, disappointed that the Institute of Art was locked and shuttered, and warmly welcomed into suffering retail art storefronts hurting for a fresh infusion of cash. We smiled together in the graffiti-littered booths of a traditional Chicago pizzeria, celebrating tiredly with melted fresh mozarella and cornmeal crunchy crust.

We returned home, to dust off shelved dreams of old age, and planning weddings, and welcoming luscious grandbabies and traveling with our canes across distant continents on an anniversary far off in a much brighter future. Falling asleep at four a.m., 24 hours later, my last thought was "thank You, Father". A simple praise, unfettered with other worries or requests. A long, collective sigh of relief as we all closed our eyes to the vista of crystalline star-lit sky, home again, warm in our beds, safe, content.