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Thrown for a Loop

by Mary Jedlicka Humston

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Two thyroid cancer surgeries. Four weeks on a low iodine diet. One radioactive iodine treatment requiring three days of isolation. Five to six weeks of radiation therapy still ahead.

Cancer caught me by surprise when my yearly routine physical turned out to be anything but routine. From the moment my doctor found the lump on my neck, I felt like I’d been thrown into a speeding train. I had no control where it took me, what stops it made, how long the journey would take or even where the final destination lie. All I knew was I had to hold onto my seat and endure the frightening cancer ride as it barreled up mountains, into valleys, and over bridges with the tunnel of radiation looming in the distance.

Facing 25 to 30 treatments seemed overwhelming despite concentrating on taking it one day at a time. It helped to have everyone, especially my husband, Jim, and our three children, surround me with love and support. And the prayers, so many they wrapped around me like a comforting shawl.

I wondered what people would think about an adult using colored construction paper loops to get through radiation.

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Mary’s paper chain represents her 30 radiation treatments for thyroid cancer.

I shared my dread with one of my four sisters, a great listener. Finally, she said, “You know those paper chains kids make to count down the days before Christmas? Maybe you could use one for this.”

Afterward, I mulled it over. I wondered what people would think about an adult using colored construction paper loops to get through radiation. Wouldn’t it trivialize the seriousness of the treatments? Would this really help, especially when I certainly wasn’t looking forward to radiation like a child eagerly awaiting Christmas? The more I thought about it, the more I realized that maybe it wasn’t so silly. Maybe it would be just the oomph I needed, a little spark of fun amid the fire.

When I decided to make the chain, Jim was at work, but my oldest daughter, Jill, was visiting, so she helped. We cut strips of colored paper, numbering them and stapling them into circles. When we linked them together, a large pile formed. I located the loop labeled “one.” I raised it to tape it to the living room closet door. My spirits plummeted when the remaining 29 fell into a long, cascading chain. The lumps of cancer had been surgically removed from my throat, but a different lump formed. Could I really endure that many treatments?

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Mary removes the final loop in her paper chain as she celebrates her last radiation treatment for thyroid cancer.

Swallowing hard, I decided to focus on how wonderful it would feel removing that final loop instead of the fear threatening to overtake me. With renewed determination, I taped the chain onto the door, securing it to a sign that simply read “Count Down.”

When I arrived home after my first treatment, I removed loop number 30. It didn’t feel childish at all. It was liberating, even a bit fun. I placed the torn strip of paper on the countertop, reluctant to throw it away. Bold and colorful, it lay there until an idea formed. What if I shared these loops with others? I could include them inside a card explaining their significance and adding a note of appreciation.

My husband Jim received one. So did my children. My parents. My sister. And on and on.

Gradually, the chain shortened until I realized I was halfway through treatment. What an indescribable feeling! One day, I learned my treatment schedule had been changed from 30 days to 25. I went home and eagerly snatched off five loops.

The countdown was in earnest now. Only ten days left. Eight. Three. Then the big day arrived. My last treatment. One more loop.

When I walked out of the radiation room for the last time, Jim surprised me with a bouquet of glorious pink roses. I cried tears of joy and relief. I’d done it.

Leaving the cancer center, I held my flowers in one hand and Jim’s hand in the other. We smiled, laughed even. It was time to go home and remove that final loop.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Mary Jedlicka Humston is a writer and poet living in Iowa City, IA. She is also a thyroid cancer survivor.

Someone considering this paper loop project might offer the strips of paper to friends and family to write confidential words of encouragement on each strip before they are made into the chain. Later, when each loop is removed, you would receive an extra daily boost. I never thought to do this when I made my chain in 2008, but if I had, I would’ve enjoyed those little pieces of personalized encouragement.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, July/August 2011.