A bit of a dramatic title, perhaps, but it is completely and utterly true, and I hope this can serve as, at least, a little food for thought for anyone reading my posts prior to having their own thyroidectomy.
So, what was the worst thing I did after my thyroid surgery?
I went back to work too soon.
The timing of my diagnosis couldn't have come at a more inconvenient moment for me professionally. I was working in sports media, which is a fast-paced, 24/7-type of environment to operate in, and my situation unfolded right at the beginning of the new season. Peak time in terms of workload and hecticness.
In fact, the day after my Fine Needle Aspiration (FNA) biopsy, I had to drive 120km to another city and cover the curtain-opening Super Cup Final - the kick-off event of the annual sporting calendar. I was not only a 'media person' at this sort of big event, though; I was also part of the organising committee, so on such days it was crucial to be there from dusk till dawn and be fully active and operational. Not to mention it was all outdoors, in the searing summer heat of the Gulf.
It was partly a blessing to be so busy in the lead up to my surgery, though, as it kept me distracted and didn't allow me much time to wallow in worry or despair. I just kept going. What I should not have done, though, is continue at that same hurtling pace after the surgical procedure.
Recently I - at last - got around to reading Lady Karren Brady's excellent book, entitled 'Strong Woman', and I was particularly able to relate to her anecdotes surrounding her surgery to remove a brain aneurysm. She describes the feeling of pressure to return to her roles and responsibilities almost immediately, as well as a sense of guilt and even uneasiness at the thought of having people 'fawn' over her as though she was no longer capable of carrying on 'business as usual'. Though not in anywhere near such a high-profile or high-powered position as her, I felt the same.
It didn't sit comfortably with me to be labelled as 'sick', and therefore I was keen to show quickly after my surgery that I wasn't. Some staff members in my office cried upon hearing the news of my diagnosis, which I found baffling. I wasn't used to being cried over and I certainly wasn't seeking sympathy, nor was I any less capable than I ever had been.
Another reason why I was so desperate to prove my capability to continue as normal was that I was under scrutiny and pressure at work, from the new boss. A dictatorial type who earned his title based on connections rather than merit; to my face I was told I would be supported throughout my ordeal, but behind my back I found out that emails were sent to Human Resources instructing them to strictly monitor my attendance and deduct salary if I went over the company policy allowance of sick days. I didn't want to lose my job, nor could I afford to.
It was due to these points that I was on my work phone and writing press releases from my hospital bed. I did receive a one-week sick leave certificate from my surgeon, meaning I could at least avoid going to the office for seven days after the surgery, but I was still constantly on call, and even those seven days were scrutinised by my company's 'medical committee' as to their legitimacy.
As a result of trying too hard to prove to myself and everyone around me that I was absolutely fine, I put my own health and recovery at risk. I didn't allow my body - or my mind - time to HEAL. I didn't even give myself time to process what had happened. Being told you have cancer at the age of 24 is not something you can just shrug your shoulders about, even if you try to act like it is. Any type of general anaesthesia and major surgery has major physical and mental impacts. I just tried to cover it up.
But, as with everything in life, it caught up with me. And it didn't actually take that long to do so. Everyone who's had thyroid surgery knows the struggle to recalibrate your body afterwards; trying to deal with the lack of thyroid function, trying to find the right dosage of thyroid hormone replacement medication, or - as in my case - simply trying to operate as a human being with just 20% of a thyroid left and no medical supplementation... It's draining. It's exhausting. But it's also invisible to others. We look fine, so everyone thinks we are fine.
Around 2 months after my surgery my energy levels dipped to their lowest ebb. There were days when I couldn't get out of bed until 3pm, and other days I couldn't get out of bed at all. I kept having to drag myself to hospital and try to convince my doctor to write me another sick leave certificate, but in the end I also just accepted sometimes being docked a few days' pay. I always still did my work from home, but not being physically present in the office was affecting my standing within the company.
In the end I just had to accept the fact that I needed to listen more to my body. I needed to allow myself to be 'lazy' some days. The more rest I allowed myself to catch up on, the better my partial thyroid began to repair itself and function. It came down to priorities, and really there could be no debate that my health was paramount.
The truth is that you never completely recover and heal from thyroid surgery. The scar fades, the optimal dosage of medication is eventually found, your coping mechanism becomes refined. But if you don't give your body or your mind a chance to recuperate from what you've been through from the very beginning, you will only be hampering yourself on the pathway to better health.