"I received my MSc and found out I no longer had cancer in the same week"

When I was handed a medical report reading 'no evidence of cancer' I primarily felt relief. That relief has exponentially transitioned to great joy.
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Recent graduate Rayan Bhargava

Recent graduate Rayan Bhargava, 23, found out he had thyroid cancer while studying for a master’s degree in the Political Economy of Europe. Here, he shares his story.

I found out I had cancer on 15 March 2021.

I’d just finished a Zoom meeting with my dissertation supervisor, when I noticed my doctor’s office had been trying to call. I remember thinking it was odd they had rung multiple times over the span of a few minutes.

When I called them back my doctor shared the results of a recent CT scan which I’d had after noticing a large lump at the base of my neck.

The scan was ordered only after a blood test indicated I had normal thyroid hormone levels, a curiosity that poked a hole in my doctor’s original theory that the lump was a harmless goiter resulting from a thyroid disorder.

The actual diagnosis was significantly more rare and harder to manage. Thyroid cancer.

I was in Austin, Texas. I’d returned home for Winter break and had been slow to return after classes had gone online for Lent term.

Grief is the best word I can use to describe what I felt that week. In hindsight, I’m glad I allowed myself that feeling unmitigated. Permitting myself to grieve was probably the healthiest decision I made in this whole process.

A few weeks later, I learned the name of my cancer. Papillary thyroid carcinoma, the most common and well-understood of the four major types of thyroid cancer.

Undergoing treatment

Surgery was first. In April 2021, I had my thyroid organ removed as well as a few dozen lymph nodes in my right neck and upper chest. I went to physical therapy for a few weeks before I had a second surgery to remove more lymph nodes from the left side of my neck.

The primary tumor on my thyroid was 5cm at its widest, and about 20 of the 66 lymph nodes removed were cancerous. I now have a 9-inch scar running from one corner of my jaw to the other, that I sport proudly.

The surgery involved scraping cancer off my vocal nerve. This paralysed my right vocal cord. We hoped this would be temporary given the 50-60 percent chance it would heal itself over the next year. My vocal cord never did move, meaning it’s permanently paralysed.

The bright side is that I have regained over 90 percent of my original voice through a combination of speech therapy, a vocal cord injection, and relearning how to speak using only my left side.

After surgery came radiation. For those with papillary thyroid cancer, this is a particularly bizarre prospect. Instead of undergoing the more common external beam radiation, we undergo radioactive iodine therapy. This involves swallowing a pill made of a radioactive isotope of iodine. This is a very targeted treatment that can burn cancer while sparing most of the rest of the body.

As a result, my body became fundamentally radioactive. After consuming a moderate dose of radioactive iodine, I isolated in my room for a week. Coming close to others would have exposed them to the radiation emitted by my body.

I bought a Geiger counter so I could measure how radioactive I became. The average human experiences about 0.2 microsieverts of background radiation every hour from vaguely nuclear things like sunlight. The day after swallowing my nuclear pill, my body came in at 430 microsieverts p/h. This led to disappointingly few spider-based superpowers nor the ability to glow in the dark.

Recovery time

A week later, I went for a scan to determine how far my cancer had spread. At this point, I received the most relieving news of my whole cancer experience:  that it had not spread to my lungs or bones.

I now take hormone pills daily to replace the thyroid organ I no longer have. These are essentially a synthetic version of the hormones my thyroid would otherwise produce. Luckily, my body doesn’t seem to have caught on to this ruse and I feel pretty good while on them. I’ll be taking these for the rest of my life.

When I was diagnosed, I had a week of taught classes left of my course. I missed these in favor of getting my treatment underway. I deferred my outstanding exams and dissertation.

For months, I didn’t look at anything academic. I used my free time to do what made me feel best. I spent time with friends and family and took up new hobbies. The silver lining of this period was that, for the first time in a while, I was able to rest without feeling guilty.

I tried to return to my studies gradually. In January 2022, my head was still a bit hazy from treatment so I completed assessments for two of my courses and deferred everything else.

I handed in my dissertation in May 2022 and finished the rest of my assessments by early June 2022.  

This involved self-discipline. Everyone in my cohort had graduated and I was thousands of miles away from London re-teaching myself about the political economy of Europe using Moodle archives from courses I hadn’t thought about in over a year.

This time was also interspersed with seemingly endless doctor’s appointments to evaluate my cancer-killing, hormone suppressing, and speech relearning progress.

I simply concentrated on doing my best to finish my degree with little regard for the results. I wanted to prove to myself I could still function as I had before cancer treatment. Frankly, I’m really proud, and perhaps a bit surprised, that I finished.

Happy news

I had a scan in June 2022. The results showed no meaningful evidence of cancer in my body. When I was handed a medical report reading “no evidence of cancer” I primarily felt relief. Over the following weeks, that relief has exponentially transitioned to great joy as I process everything.

Four days later, I was emailed the provisional results of my degree. They indicated I would be awarded my MSc in the Political Economy of Europe with a merit classification. This was officially confirmed in July.

This news, alongside my new health status, spelled the end of an especially challenging part of my life. I was overjoyed with what I was able to accomplish in less-than-ideal circumstances. I don’t think I’ve ever felt quite so proud, and I wonder if I ever will again.

For anyone going through something similar, I would suggest taking things as they come and allowing yourself reactions that are consistent with the circumstances. I’m glad I allowed myself to grieve my diagnosis fully.

Cancer has an underrated effect on your mental health, despite its perception as a physical disease.  

Your health is more important than anything else. If that means taking time off to rest, then do that. Of course, that might not be an option for everyone. Be a bit selfish, if you can, and privilege taking care of yourself. Because if you’re not going to do so in such dire circumstances, when are you?

Going forwards, I’ll be attending the LSE graduation ceremony in December. I’m also hoping to extend this into a trip around the continent whose political economy I’ve studied so extensively at LSE!