On October 1, 2021, after having what I had thought was routine thyroid surgery, I was diagnosed with anaplastic thyroid cancer, a cancer so rare that none of my doctors had ever seen it before. It’s so aggressive that it only exists as Stage IV.
The typical survival rate? Six months or less. One in five patients lives 12 months.
It’s October 2023.
I did a 10K race in July. At 6,000 feet. Last winter, I was a ski instructor. I’m a rock ’n’ roll DJ at the mountain town station that I used to stream when I lived in New York, fantasising that I was living here. Now I am. I have the life I’d longed dreamed of.
Every morning, as I watch the sun come up over the mountains I never thought I’d live in again, I give thanks for everything in my life that brought me to this moment. Especially that diagnosis. It taught me that I had no time to waste. It taught me how much I love life — rough, bumpy and hard as it often is. It taught me how much more I wanted to do. And now I’m doing it.
But on that fall day in 2021, I was terrified. I was also furious.
I was two years out from a divorce after an unhappy marriage that I had long wanted to escape but had been afraid to leave. I felt I’d spent years quashing my voice and my spirit to keep that marriage going. Being a wife had become my identity. When the marriage tanked, I felt betrayed by the society that still pushed the fallacy that a woman had to have a man to be something. I felt betrayed by the husband who dumped me. Most of all, I felt I had betrayed myself by staying instead of standing up for myself and leaving.
I was desperate to resurrect the young woman I’d been back when I’d first gone to New York for grad school after ski bumming in Aspen. That me had planned on spending just a few years in the city before returning to the mountains. But you know how it goes: I met a guy, fell in love, marriage, kids, mortgages. And, hey, New York is pretty damn fun — until it nearly kills you.
The final years of my marriage, the divorce and its aftermath were brutal. I routinely woke at 3 a.m. staring into the darkness. My weight plummeted. I landed in the ER with what I thought might be a heart attack but was really a panic attack.
I struggled to pull myself together. I kept on running. I became a certified yoga sculpt instructor. I read self-help books. I not only talked to my therapist once a week, I sent her email after email filled with grief and fury.
And then I did something I never thought I would do: I started singing rock ’n’ roll. Onstage! Me! Who had all but died when faced with piano recitals at St. Patrick’s School. In high school plays, I stayed behind the scenes and did makeup and worked on costumes. I was solidly in the audience.
But now I was running from the firestorm of my old life. I came to a cliff, closed my eyes and jumped. I was desperation personified when I took that leap. I was shaky as hell, but singing in the spotlight gave me a solid piece of ground in a world that had turned into quicksand.
The stage was a place where I could escape my pain for a few hours. But it was still there. The wounds wrought by my past were still raw inside me, haunting my dreams and shadowing my days.
COVID hit. Stages everywhere, including mine, went dark. I lost my refuge.
I still planned to leave New York and return to the mountains, but I was waiting for my youngest child to graduate from high school.
She went off to college. I stayed in New York. COVID still raged. I rationalised it was a bad time to move to a town where I knew no one. And I thought my kids should still have their mama’s place to come home to in New York, even though my new apartment was a fraction of the size of the one they’d grown up in.
What it all boiled down to, though, is that I was afraid to leave. Yet again.
So the universe kicked me in the butt. Hard.
As I lay in my bed on that October night in 2021 after being told I had just months to live, I railed against my fate. What gives, universe? I thought we were in sync! C’mon!
I knew one thing: I was getting the hell out of New York. But I wasn’t going to the mountains. I was going to Houston, one of the flattest places in the United States. It’s also home to the MD Anderson Cancer Center, which my cousin discovered has a special clinic — named FAST — that specializes in my type of cancer.
I packed up what I thought I would need in Houston. I ran around New York gathering my medical records. I went out to dinner and drank margaritas with friends.
And then I bought something many people facing cancer like mine would never think to buy: a T-Card, a discount ski pass for Telluride Ski Resort, near where one of my brothers lives in Colorado.
I bought it because of one line in the anaplastic thyroid cancer printout I’d gotten the day of my diagnosis. After learning I probably had just six months to live, I read this sentence: “Despite these discouraging figures...” (Discouraging? I had thought as I read it. What comedian wrote this?) “...there are some long-term survivors.”
“I’m going to be one of them,” I had promised my daughters. We were all crying. “I don’t know how, but I will.”
And that was why I made the decision to buy that ski pass. I was going to do more than live — I was going to be strong and healthy enough to ski. And this purchase was going to be the thing that kept me fighting no matter what came my way.
See that, universe? I thought as I clicked the “buy now” icon.
Five days after my diagnosis, I walked in the doors of MD Anderson.
The FAST clinic was aptly named. MD Anderson kept me on the run. I liked that. I had CT scans, PET scans, brain scans, MRIs, blood tests. I even got to look at my vocal cords during a laryngoscopy.
I had a second surgery.
“The odds aren’t good,” the surgeon told me. And then he added, “But we do cure some people with this cancer.”
I had five weeks of radiation and chemo. I stayed with my cousin in Houston. She has a big house, a bigger heart and a long-suffering husband. Both of my daughters, one accompanied by her boyfriend, came to cheer me on. Each of my three brothers (one with his almost house-trained new puppy), my sister and three of my besties from New York came, one after another. We talked. We power-walked. We partied. I had Zoom calls with friends and family. I couldn’t drink alcohol, but I asked everyone I knew to drink for me. And they did.
I finished my treatment. I rang the proverbial bells, one for my last chemo treatment and one for my last rad cure, as I had started calling radiation. But I wasn’t done with MD Anderson. I had to come back every two months to get scanned. Anaplastic thyroid cancer is like Rasputin — it comes roaring back 80% of the time.
At one point, I noticed a small growth on my face. “It looks fine to me,” said my radiation doctor. “But you never can tell with this cancer. I’m sending you to dermatology.”
The growth was benign and the dermatologist just froze it off, but I remembered the doctor’s respect for this cancer and the need for constant surveillance.
I headed to the mountains of Colorado to be near my Telluride brother. I rented an Airbnb near his family’s home in case my radiation side effects got bad. I hired a moving company to empty my apartment back in New York and put my belongings in storage in Hoboken.
I was scared. I could feel unfamiliar prickling sensations in my neck. Was it just after effects of radiation? Or was it something terrible?
Two days before Christmas, I got a call from Houston.
“We think you’re a good candidate for immunotherapy,” the nurse told me. “Can you come back to Houston next week?”
Damn straight I could.
I flew back to Houston. CT and PET scans showed I was still disease-free. I was the perfect candidate for immunotherapy.
“Basically,” my endocrinologist told me, “it opens your immune system’s eyes to cancer.”
It helps my body keep me healthy and disease-free.
“Go back to Colorado and ski,” my endocrinologist told me. “Just don’t break any bones.”
As I walked out of MD Anderson after hearing the good news, I wept tears of joy and gratitude. The deadly cancer I’d been diagnosed with had just become a disease that is chronic but manageable.
On a cold but clear blue-bird-sky January day in 2022, I stepped into my skis and glided over to Lift 7 at Telluride. The liftie scanned my T-Pass and up I went.
On that first run down the hill, I revelled in the moment. The sparkling snow. The crisp air. The sky above me. Skis, mountain, snow, gravity and me, all working together. I was alive!
I wanted to do that first run on my own, but then I caught up with my brother. He and I and one of his ski buddies rode up the Prospect Express lift together.
“What brings you here?” the friend asked me.
I took a deep breath and exhaled.
“Well,” I said. And I told my story — Aspen, New York, love, marriage, divorce. And cancer.
“I always planned on returning,” I told him. “And now, finally, I have.”
The friend was silent for a moment and then he looked at me.
“Welcome back,” he said.
Kate Rice is a runner, rock ’n roll singer and stand-up comic who performs mostly in the shower but sometimes on stage. She’s an author and former reporter. She lives in Park City, Utah, where she is a ski instructor and rock ’n roll radio DJ. Her new memoir, “Cured: A Tale of Badassery,” will be released on November 15, 2023.