Aaleyah and I have known each other for about 17 years (more or less), and she has grown to be like a sister to me. As long as I have known her, she has been quite resilient with all that life has thrown at her. She recently graduated from Georgia State University May of 2016, and had plans on attending the Disney College Program this past January. However, her plans were put on hold due to an unexpected diagnosis…
It all began October of last year when I was on the phone with Aaleyah discussing the plans she had for her birthday. She mentioned to me that she wasn’t feeling well and that she had this bad sore throat, but I still insisted that she fly down to Florida to celebrate her birthday. Before her trip, she went to the doctor to get checked for her sore throat. After that visit, her WebMD research, and butterfly signs (she always had this thing with butterflies, she began seeing them more and the fact that the thyroid is shaped like a butterfly, it all made sense) she came to the conclusion that she had thyroid cancer. A few weeks later I get a call from Aaleyah letting me know that she had been diagnosed with medullary thyroid carcinoma (a neuroendocrine cancer contrary to the name). From the beginning not once has she ever complained or wanted anyone to feel sorry for her, it’s just been like hey, this is something that I have to adjust to and keep on going. In January I surprised her in Houston for her first surgery, and must I say watching her deal with all that has been going on (and my has it been a lot going on) has been so admiring. From graduating and making plans to further accomplish her dreams, to having to put those plans on hold to deal with her health, she has remarkably handled with so much strength.
In honor of it being the last day of women’s history month and today being Aaleyah’s second and biggest surgery, it felt only right that my first Table Talk be with her. I wanted her to share a piece of her story, being a young adult (22 years old) and diagnosed with cancer. After reading our conversation I don’t know what you will take from it, but I hope that you can at least take one thing, that whatever life throws at you it’s never the end and you can make the best of what you’re given.
Here’s a piece of HERstory…
Danielle: How are you today?
Aaleyah: I’m great, how are you?
I’m doing good, trying to make some lemonade.
Lemonade or tea (laughs)?
Hmm… tea because you know it cures it all, and add some lemon.
(Laughs) I’ll just channel Beyoncé and make some lemonade in my life.
(Laughs) You’ve been doing a great job at it.
Thank you! I really appreciate that.
So of course I know what’s going on, but for everyone else when did you find out about your diagnosis?
Yeah sure, so I was diagnosed with a rare genetic form of cancer called medullary thyroid carcinoma (MTC) in November of last year. So it’s only been about 4 months.
What was your reaction after receiving the news?
(Laughs) I don’t think I had a reaction. I didn’t cry and I was extremely chill. I think I called you right after that, do you remember my reaction?
You were extremely calm, and we just made plans to go to relay for life (laughs). But eventually it did get to you.
Yeah of course, my emotions have definitely caught up with me since then. Every day I feel something different. I’m still at the beginning of all of this, so of course I have to remind myself that that’s normal.
Did you have any symptoms before your diagnosis?
Of course hindsight is 20/20, so there are a lot of things that I look back on and wonder if it had anything to do with my illness. The one symptom that I would say caught my attention was a sore throat. It was different than the ones that I have experienced before. All the pain was on the right side of my throat, and rang up to my right ear.
Were there any times that your doctor would mention anything out of the ordinary but it wouldn’t be given much attention?
Over the years my doctors would say my thyroid was enlarged on one side. They would do blood work to test its function and would say everything came back normal.
Were there anymore test that you could have done?
An ultrasound would have been the best bet. After hearing that [my thyroids were enlarged] so many times, and having that painful sore throat, I knew something was wrong. I did my research and demanded one.
That is great for someone to know who may be dealing with something similar. I would encourage everyone not to settle on normal test results when their body is experiencing things out the ordinary or if their body just doesn’t feel right. Research and ask more because you never know.
Yeah, definitely. That goes for every situation in life. You have to fight for what is best for you.
What stage cancer do you have?
I actually don’t know the answer to that yet. I’m having surgery in a couple days. I won’t know for sure until I get the pathology report.
What does treatment look like for you?
That’s a really good question. Before my diagnosis, I thought chemotherapy was the only treatment. It turns out that the cancer I have doesn’t have a cure, or even reacts to chemo. That was a really hard pill for me to swallow. For now, surgery is my best option. We’re going to remove my thyroid and the lymph nodes in my neck. After my upcoming surgery we will do more blood work and scans to determine the next step.
I thought chemotherapy would be an option for all cancers, the more you know. What would you say has been the toughest thing to deal with, with your particular cancer?
With a rare disease, things can get lonely. Think about it this way, if you take all the cancers in the United States, one percent of those cases are thyroid cancer. The genetic form of MTC is less than one percent of those thyroid cancer cases.
You mentioned how you have a rare genetic form of cancer, is there anyone in your family that has it?
Yeah I recently found out that it’s a genetic mutation that has caused cancer, and a couple other medical problems. I inherited it from my father, but I don’t think we have enough time for that full story (laughs).
(Laughs) That’s another table talk. What about your relationships with people, any changes?
My relationships with people have changed. Some for the better, and some for the worst. There were some “friends” that had absolutely no sympathy. They would expect me to do the same things, and be the same person I was prior to my diagnosis. They would get so upset, but all of that was just a learning lesson. I eventually had to dissolve a couple of relationships, so that I could be happy. On the other hand, many people have stepped up and given me more support than I ever could imagine. I’m so grateful for my support system. Those are the people that are getting me through this.
Are there any additional changes to your social life?
You know I’ve never been much of a partier, so that aspect hasn’t changed. I’ve always been a person that likes to have a good time, but never overboard. I have had to cancel plans because of fatigue, or appointments, but my real friends understand.
What has been your biggest fear?
In life or within my diagnosis?
This is going to sound cliché but I would probably say dying. Not literally dying, but being dead while alive, if that makes sense. I crave so much adventure, and always have been a free spirit. There’s so much I want to do before I leave this earth. I guess the fear is not being able to fulfill the things that make me, me.
I think that’s what has made you strong, knowing your fear. Some people let fear get the best of them, but watching you with everything going on I see that you aim to live above your fear, and go through life fearlessly. You will still be able to do all your heart desires. May not be how you planned it before, but there are plenty of routes to a desired destination.
Thanks, living life fearlessly is definitely my goal. I feel like I’m on my way to making that happen.
Lastly, what have you learned through all of this? Has it given you a new outlook on life?
I feel like I’m kind of becoming a whole new person. Someone special to me compared my journey to the life cycle of a butterfly. In order for a caterpillar to become a beautiful butterfly it has to go through a transition. A period where it’s in seclusion, a dark and lonely place. But at the end of that hardship, it creates something so special. I look at the good in life and in a weird way I’m starting to enjoy this rebirth. Right now I’m a lonely caterpillar in a cocoon. Sometimes I’m afraid of the dark and unknown. Sometimes I’m weary of what’s next. But luckily for me, I have a book light and stack of Iyanla Vazant books in my cocoon. I have a family of butterflies and caterpillars knocking on my door, letting me know that life doesn’t end here. So yeah, I guess my new outlook on life is to live life like a butterfly, going through transitions, and coming out with a beautiful heart, mind, body, and soul.
(Laughs) We’re both in a cocoon, but that’s a beautiful way to look at it.
Thanks! Yeah, we can turn these lemons into lemonade.
“I had my ups and downs, but I always find the inner strength to pull myself up. I was served lemons, but I made lemonade” – Beyoncé, Freedom