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Greta Rybus

Greta Rybus is a photojournalist and photo editor living in Portland. She started her blog, “Who I Met," as a way to begin juicy conversations with interesting people she meets. The blog has migrated with her from Montana, Europe, and, finally, to her new and dearly-loved home in Maine. You can see more of her work at www.gretarybus.com

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Who I Met with Greta Rybus
Posted: June 4, 2013

RILEY HART- ARTIST, ADVENTURER, CANCER SURVIVOR

These are the mysteries: why we pick the adventures we do, and why certain adventures find us. Why some cells turn to cancer, and others don’t. Why some hearts sour during the hard times and others thrive.  Why some lives are filled with sadness and obstacles and other lives are not.

These are the facts: Riley is 23. She has thyroid cancer. Because her thyroid is gone, she often feels apathetic or lethargic. Her life, though it is joyful, has been mired with undue tragedies of which this cancer diagnosis is the most recent. Despite the ache in her bones and a chemical sadness in her heart, she is training to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. She has decided to ascend when so much is weighing her down.

 WHAT IS IMPORTANT TO YOU?

I don’t want to be sappy and say love, but… it’s more like living your life to the fullest and being able to experience it as much a possible. I don’t want to get to a point in my life where I say , “I was having a really great time in my life. When I was 21, I met a great guy and learned how to surf and got into hiking. And they I got thyroid cancer and now I’m a chubby lethargic lump.” I don’t want that to be the case. I want to embrace my life. My grandmother is 87, and I lived with her for ten years. And I want to be able to live life in a way where she can tell people how proud she is of me. I want to live life and be happy. I feel like sometimes she gets upset that my mom passed away. I was eleven. She misses her daughter and I feel like there is part of my mom that could have done a lot more. She went to art school and dropped out and got married. She just ended up falling apart basically. I want to prove that I’m going to stick with it and be positive and stay active, doing the things I know will make me happy and that I can share with other people, too.

 TELL ME THE STORY OF YOUR DIAGNOSIS.

Around Thanksgiving, I was falling asleep, and I had my hand on my neck and felt an egg-sized lump in my neck. I was worried, but I knew there was a history of thyroid issues in my family. I thought I’d go in, get a blood test, take a pill and it would be over. Finally, around January, I went to First Care for it. The doctor looked at it and he did an ultrasound test. I could hear him discussing it with the technicians and they were saying, “I don’t know, it’s the weirdest thing we’ve ever seen. I have no idea what it is.” A month later, I had a biopsy. It’s called a fine-needle aspiration, a needle the width of a horse hair that collects single needle samples. They tested the calls, and they said it looks like papillary thyroid cancer, and I got scheduled for surgery. In order to make it safer for me, they only removed half of it,  and tested it while I was still on the table. That test came back looking pretty good, not cancerous. They zipped me up and they told me, “Congratulations, it’s not cancer.” I got a phone call a week later, not even from my doctor, to make an appointment for my second surgery. I found out from a secretary that I had positive results for cancer. Two weeks after the first surgery, I had a second surgery. I was held overnight because many people’s parathyroids go into shock. Mine didn’t go into shock until later. And my medical bills came out to be more than I am in debt for my college tuition.

 WHAT WERE YOU FEELING WHEN YOU GOT THAT DIAGNOSIS?

I have to prepare myself. I thrive on knowledge. I went to this website called thyca.org, the Thyroid Cancer Survivors Association, and I printed their manual for living with thyroid cancer. I had girded myself for the worst. After the first surgery in which I was told that it’s wasn’t cancer, when I found out it was cancer, I just collapsed on the ground. I felt like I thought I was going to be okay. Now, knowing what it’s like to live without a thyroid , knowing what I’m getting into, and knowing how difficult it is, it’s really hard to stay positive. Everyone else in the support groups are so negative because of the nature of the problem. Without a thyroid you are depressed and lethargic, and you can’t really control any of that. It’s not the kind of thing I need to be hearing right now.

 WHERE DO YOU FIND SUPPORT?

Friends. The handful of people who have contacted me through my blog saying, “Hey, I feel fine a year after my thyroid was removed.” Or “I’ve gone through this.” And all my doctors say, “Oh you’ll be fine. You can do the hike (Kilimanjaro).” I get discouraged sometimes, but I have to remind myself that it’s a fault in chemicals and not in character. It’s not my fault that I feel depressed or sad or anxious. It’s the side effects of living without a thyroid.

 IS THERE A WAY YOU USED TO FEEL, AND A WAY YOU FEEL NOW?

I used to have a lot more energy in general. Now, I have to think hard about what I put into my body because my body just isn’t going to process it as fast. I worry about grain, dairy, sugar. When your body slows down a lot, your body gains a lot of weight. And I don’t want to have to deal with that, on top of training for Mount Kilimanjaro. You know, it’s tricky.

 TELL ME ABOUT YOUR IDEA TO CLIMB KILIMANJARO.

It started when I was eight-years-old. I had saved up my birthday money. Both my parents were alcoholics, so I asked my grandma to help me invest it. I asked her to take me to a broker. So, I invested a bunch of stock. And I picked a random date to receive that money. I sold all my stock and checked my bank account and hardly realized where all that money came from. I paid off one of my loans in full, and the rest I’ve donated to charity.  I booked two tickets to Kilimanjaro. Shortly thereafter was my diagnosis. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do, and I want to be able to say I’ve done a high-altitude trek. I want to be able to push myself physically to do it.

 

 HAS THE CONCEPT OF HIKING KILIMANJARO CHANGED FOR YOU AFTER YOUR DIAGNOSIS?

Now it’s sort of a vehicle to prove to people who have gone through thyroid cancer that there is a way you can get back on track and that you can feel at least somewhat okay. You can still accomplish great things. There are only a handful of people that I have come across that have still done such active things. A lot of it has to do with how determined you are. And that it’s not your fault that you feel the way you do. It’s not your fault that you are sad or depressed or tired. You are still learning the things you can do to change that. And it’s all about being positive and surrounding your self with positive people.

WHAT ARE THE THINGS YOU DRAW ON TO FEEL MOTIVATED AND HAPPY?

Getting my cat was one thing. I’m still trying hard to make art and come up with ideas for studio practice. I collect crystals and stones. I have an altar with a big geode and an apartment full of plants. I surround myself with things that enjoy looking at, and know that they give me positive energy. I know that it’s a pseudo-science, but I still like the idea of crystal healing. I want to be around life and things of the earth. These things keep me going.

 WHAT DOES IT FEEL LIKE WHEN YOU ARE TIRED?

The exhaustion would hit me like a brick wall. About eight or nine hours into the day, it would feel like the kind of exhaustion you would get after you had gotten over a bad bout of the flu. That shaky, dizzy  nausea. I need to lay down, I can’t do anything. Now the kind of exhaustion I get is an emotional kind of exhaustion. It gets frustrating because sometimes I can’t even carry a load of laundry up the stairs. It’s a kind of melancholy. I’ll be perfectly relaxed but be void of feeling.  But, I’m able to still feel joy, and I’m learning to appreciate those moments where I feel real.

 TELL ME ABOUT A LESSON YOU ARE LEARNING OR HAVE LEARNED RECENTLY.

I’m learning it’s okay to be honest when you are tired. My friends will still care about me, no matter how many times I back out of plans. They know where I’m coming from and how difficult it can be, especially after an eight-hour workday. Just understanding and not questioning that people really care. I used to really worry about honesty and integrity of people, because I’ve been lied to in the past. I’m getting a lot of reassurance that my friends are my friends. I shouldn’t worry about that, I know they will always be there. And they will be there when I do get well.

 WHAT DO YOU WANT IN YOUR LIFE?

I want a home. Outside everything with cancer, deep down I want a home. I want to share it. It’s always something I’ve wanted. I want a deep connection to a place, without the fear of having to lose it. I’ve always been moving. I know Maine is my home, but I want a place I can make my home. I like making things. I want to make my own curtains, paint my own dresser, and I want to make a garden. And really be proud of the place I put together. To be able to share that with my friends and the person I’m settling down with.

 WHAT IS THE BEST MOMENT OF YOUR DAY?

Usually, even though I’m exhausted in the morning, it’s my walk to work. I walk up High Street, and I think, “ Okay, I can still walk up this hill!” I’m always a little bit early and I get a coffee and I watch the sunrise from the parking lot overlooking the Old Port. And just enjoy the morning sunshine with coffee and nobody is around. It’s the simplest thing, but it’s awesome.

 

To help Riley fundraise to raise awareness about thyroid cancer, click here.
To follow Riley’s blog, From Cancer to Kilimanjaro, click here.
To discover Riley’s art, click here.

 

 

 

 

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