Sunday, March 6, 2011

Candy Schiller On Surviving Thyroid Cancer and Trusting Her Instincts

But who will raise my daughter? And my husband?

Candy Schiller remembers that cold jolt of maternal terror with a tearful laugh. The Schillers are close; an earnest, modern-day version of the all-American nuclear family. In the moments following her diagnosis with thyroid cancer, Candy’s thoughts were fixated on her daughter, Caroline, and husband Lonnie. Eighteen years later, the discussion remains less about the cancer she survived than the family it affected.

It’s an unusual conversation for Candy — not in its content, but in its frequency. She speaks of the cancer itself in the abstract, with emotion reserved only for anecdotal remembrances of how it shaped her family life. In the nearly two decades since her diagnosis, Candy, an accomplished restaurateur and multi award-winning interior designer, has rarely broached the subject.

“Sometimes I feel as though I have to apologize for having had thyroid cancer,” she says, knowing that of the cancers she could have developed, hers is among the least lethal. “I don’t mention it, because I don’t feel like what I went through was even worthy of the term [cancer].

"I was lucky in every way a person can be lucky in that situation. I went in healthy; I had the support of friends and family, and I had access to the very best medical care. So many people who deal with cancer aren’t as fortunate.”

It was in January 1993 that Candy first noticed a lump had formed on her upper neck, beneath the right-hand side of her chin.

“I had a sinus infection at the time,” she says. “The infection went away after a couple of months, but the lump stayed. I visited a doctor who told me it was probably nothing and that we should just ‘watch it.’ ”

The Schiller-Del Grande Restaurant Group, in which Candy is a partner with her husband Lonnie (who is also an owner in CultureMap), sister Mimi Del Grande, and brother-in-law Robert Del Grande, had just opened a new restaurant, Rio Ranch. Candy dismissed her deteriorating health, and the curious lump, as bi-products of stress.

Before I was diagnosed, I experienced — now realizing it was low thyroid — situations in which I would hear something funny, and I would say ‘that’s really funny’ but not laugh,” she says with the sort of audible frustration that comes with hindsight. “I had the intellectual reaction, but not the physical, spiritual or emotional reaction. The day I realized that wasn’t normal was when a friend told a long story that was funny, and I kept thinking: This is really funny; I should be laughing.

"The story deserved laughter.”

Increasingly concerned, Schiller consulted three additional doctors over a nine-month period, each of them echoing the advice of the first: “Just watch it.” Candy did, and nothing changed. Skeptical of their dismissals and driven by intuition, she turned to a family friend, Dr. Marce Sulek, a pediatric ear, nose, and throat surgeon.

Observing that the lump was only on one side, Sulek told her friend Candy that it probably wasn’t anything to worry about, but suggested doing a needle aspiration to put her concerns to rest. A few days later, Candy went in for a biopsy. During on a carpool run that afternoon for daughter Caroline — who was in the second grade at the time — she got a call from Lonnie.

"Marce has been trying to reach you, but don’t worry, everything will be fine,” he told her with a speed and intensity uncharacteristic of her usually laid-back husband.

“The biopsy came back,” he continued. “It’s malignant, but don’t worry because everything is going to be fine.”

Stunned, yet oddly vindicated, Candy returned home with her daughter, wondering why her husband didn’t wait until she’d gotten home to deliver the news. She realized that his urgency wasn’t in telling her she had thyroid cancer, but in telling her that everything was going to be fine. For Lonnie, that message couldn’t be delivered fast enough. Sulek concurred: “If you’re going to get cancer, this is the one,” she told her friend.

No rhyme or reason

To Candy, the diagnosis couldn’t have seemed any more random. Her family had no significant history of cancer. Her grandfather had died of cancer, but only after spending his life working in a steel mill, which, in her mind, provided a likely environmental catalyst. Candy had been healthy and athletic all her life, growing up in California and eating organic before it was trendy.

After communing with Lonnie, they decided not to tell Caroline until after surgery. Candy’s sister, Mimi, however, and the rest of the family would soon find out by sheer happenstance. On the same day as the diagnosis, Mimi called Sulek to check in on a family friend who had been admitted to St. Luke’s — where Sulek practiced — with heart problems. Sulek assured Mimi that Candy would be fine.

“What do you mean, Candy?” Mimi asked.

But before calling her sister to follow up on the unintended revelation, Mimi called their mother in California, told her about Candy’s cancer diagnosis, and booked her a flight to Houston. Candy, meanwhile, was at home, trying to figure out how to break the news to her mother, unaware that Mimi had already initiated the family’s emergency phone tree.

Mimi finally called her sister, but, too emotional to speak, she handed the phone to her husband, chef Robert Del Grande. “I told him I was trying to figure out how to break the news to my mother,” Candy says, now amused by the situation. “He told me, coyly, that I didn’t have to worry about that.”

Mimi composed herself and told her big sister, “This is my worst nightmare,” instantly re-calibrating Candy’s perspective. At that moment, it was no longer about facing her own mortality, but about facing the potential impact on her family.

“The course of treatment for thyroid cancer is that you cut it out, basically,” Candy says matter-of-factly, as though reading out of a textbook. Candy was diagnosed on a Thursday afternoon. By Monday, the cancer had been removed.

“I had 30-some malignant lymph nodes on my neck, which is why I have a scar that goes all the way to my ear.” She traces the long, barely visible scar from her left collarbone in a semi-circle up to her right ear.

"I had a wonderful surgeon named Robert Parke, who did such an incredible job. I scar easily, but you can hardly see it.”

Barbaric System

The ongoing treatment was something out of a B-movie from the 1950s.  For a period of about three years after, I would have the same treatment: A dose of radioactive iodine that you drink though a straw,” Candy says with palpable disbelief at what she’s trying to describe. “It’s like out of a James Bond movie. You go down into the bowels of the hospital where they store the radioactive material.”

After the iodine ingestion, she’d be placed in a special ward covered in plastic and paper where, over the course of a couple of days, the radioactive material is flushed through the system.

“The doctor comes in from time to time with a Geiger counter and a yard stick. At mealtime, they put your food just inside the door. It was like being a leper.”

The treatment was repeated each year for another three years. During a six-week period prior to the annual iodine treatment, Candy had to cease thyroid medication.

“Without thyroid hormone, we’re all just slugs, because it regulates our metabolism. It was like being in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, because it affects short-term memory," Candy says. "I used to have a really good memory. I hate how it’s affected my memory. I have unbelievable empathy for people who deal with the cruelty of dementia or Alzheimer’s.”

Nearly 20 years later, Candy is less interested in the cancer itself than the person the experience created.

“It made me a better mother, because during that four-day period when I was faced with my mortality, the most overwhelming fear was for Caroline," she says. "I’m a working mother. I’m pulled between my work responsibilities and my child and this put my perspective back on my child. As a result of that, I never a missed school event, a game, a play or whatever else was important to her.”

When asked what advice she’d give to those confronting cancer — a tall order, especially for someone who has for years minimized the severity of her own experience — Candy Schiller's answer is twofold: “Be aware of what the people you love are going through, and be an advocate for yourself. My symptoms were the lump and also night sweats. I would go to bed on top of layers of towels.

"The doctors would say, ‘What do you expect?’ and told me I was pre-menopausal. Don’t ever trust a doctor who says ‘What do you expect?’ and inserts your age afterward. I knew something was wrong. How many clues did I choose to ignore? We all need to be in very close touch with our bodies and health.”

SOURCE: Culture Map Houston  by  Jeremy C. Little

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