The End of Chicken by Marcia Trahan

Something mysteriously dire and probably revolting had happened to me, and for years, I was desperate to know exactly what it looked like.

I knew the basic facts, of course: When I was thirty-five, my thyroid gland was removed in two surgeries, three weeks apart—first one half of the gland, in which they found malignant tumors, and then the other half, in which they correctly assumed there were more tumors. Stage I papillary carcinoma, or what some doctors call the “good” thyroid cancer, the highly treatable kind that hardly anyone dies from. “If you’re going to get cancer, this is the kind to get,” my endocrinologist told me, as if I’d been shopping for a disease and had made a smart choice. This was a few appointments before I fired him.

The medical community’s attitude made it hard for me to fathom my experience. I never endured chemotherapy or radiation; I felt guilty for not being bald, for the fact that medication easily replaced the hormones my body could no longer produce. I did not refer to myself as a cancer survivor. It was more like I’d had cancer lite.

It took me almost a decade to grasp that what I’d been through was plenty serious. The neat, slender four-inch scar at the base of my throat, by then a faded purple but still obvious, would always represent my presurgery dread of being knocked out cold and invaded by the knife, my terror that they would find cancer spread everywhere; and my irrevocable postsurgical awareness that death was not an abstract concept but a physical certainty.

Still, I had no visuals. I had medical records that described the procedures with terms like dissected and cauterized, skeletonized and ligated, words that made me feel like that poor stinking frog in high school biology class, but provided no clear image of the slicing and dicing.




A few months after my cancer treatment concluded, I’d felt brave enough for some Internet research. I found a photograph of a thyroid gland—a whole one, liberated intact from its host. Dark ruby-red, it lay on a flat, round white surface that might have been an ordinary dinner plate, which I dearly hoped it wasn’t. It looked like the strange cut of meat you’d find in a far corner of the supermarket case, something considered a delicacy in a culture that isn’t yours.

I did not feel faint, exactly, but some weakness in my legs compelled me to sit down, fast. Firmly supported by my desk chair, I stared at the screen. There was something to be learned here, I was sure, some very good reason not to look away.

So, that’s it. Huh.

I tried to feel sad. I tried to feel horrified. I tried to form a connection to the red, meaty thing. I didn’t feel much of anything, just a little queasy. Was I in denial? Was I missing a major insight?

I realized why the photo didn’t do any more than gross me out: the thyroid was disembodied. There it was, just lying around, with no indication of how it got there or who had it to begin with.




Nine years after the surgeries, I was surfing the Internet for statistics, once again reassuring myself that my cancer was unlikely to recur. To my surprise, all those cold numbers and neat artists’ renderings of the thyroid made me hungry for that photo of the gland on the dinner plate.

It was a strange craving, given the fact that my diet was by now 98 percent vegetarian, with the occasional turkey wrap or bowl of chicken soup making up the remaining 2 percent. My love for animals was only part of my dietary motivations. I’d been meat often enough that it was hard to deny where those slices and chunks of poultry had originated, even though they came to me fully cooked and divested of creaturehood.

I couldn’t remember where I’d seen that dinner-plate photo. I was afraid of doing an image search, leery of ending up on some cannibal serial killer’s fan website. (I figure a cannibal would totally go for a thyroid. Each lobe is bite-sized.)

Apparently, I wasn’t that afraid of images. Next thing I knew, I was on YouTube, typing “thyroid cancer surgery” in the search field. Why settle for still portraits of the gland when I could watch one being cut out?

I realized I was about to do something potentially idiotic. Still, I was proud that I’d come this far. Instead of struggling to imagine my procedures, I was going to face the real thing.

I eyed the long list of videos in the queue. Some of the preview frames showed unhappy patients with bandaged throats. I’d already seen that image in the mirror. I didn’t want those videos. I wanted the ones with bloody open incisions, gloved fingers reaching in, instruments sticking out.

Gripping the edge of my desk, I clicked on one labeled “total thyroidectomy.” The whole thing in one go. I figured I could close the video fast if I couldn’t take it.

The Indian surgeon spoke English in a most chipper tone, like the host of a cooking show on The Food Network. His face never appeared on camera; only his latex-sheathed hands were visible. The patient was described as a twenty-two-year-old male. I couldn’t see his face, either, just the outline of his chin, covered by a surgical drape with a gap over the throat. I’d read that drapes allow surgeons to forget they’re working on a human being. Otherwise, they could get distracted—and lose the nerve to cut. I understood this better now. Like the doctor, I was here for the guts.

Of course, I couldn’t completely forget the person under the covers. I braced myself for the incision: Am I actually going to watch one man cut another man’s throat? The surgeon drew the blade so quickly I didn’t have the chance to be disturbed. I was disturbed by the sitar music playing in the background. It sounded awfully festive and hip, given the circumstances.

I tended to think of the skin as a person-shaped sack that gently carried all the goodies. I’d always imagined my surgeon making the incision and easily finding my thyroid just beneath the surface, without much digging. But we’re vacuum-packed in here. Our insides just can’t wait to get out. The barriers of skin and flesh are substantial.

An assistant pulled back flaps of the patient’s outermost layer of skin, which was brown (presumably the nameless patient was also Indian) and speckled with large pores. I was pretty okay with this skin-flap business, considering, and leaned forward eagerly, looking for the thyroid. But the surgeon was still sawing through moist, salmon-colored layers of hide and white lines of fat.

It disgusted, thrilled, perplexed, and saddened me all at once.

Next, the surgeon began making little jabs in seemingly endless sheets of flesh, cheerily narrating the whole way through. The talking didn’t help; I didn’t understand the technical lingo, didn’t appreciate the no-worries tone. Every time I thought the jabbing was over, another layer appeared. Another squishy expanse of pink or red edged in white.

The whole affair wasn’t as bloody as I’d expected. But someone kept dabbing at what blood there was with what looked like a white kitchen towel. I realized I was sitting with one hand raised in a tight fist, fingers folded over palm and facing the computer screen. On Law & Order, they say this is the way a woman defends herself; not like a man, like a boxer, with both fists turned so that the top of the hand, crowned by knuckles, faces the attacker.      

Finally, I could make out some purplish meaty-looking things. I couldn’t single out the thyroid, the star of the show, for all the world. I’d thought it would be like a small-scale version of a birth by cesarean section: get in, snip, snip, grab, and get out. But somehow, I didn’t see any of the meat bits being excised. Everything pulsed and oozed in some sort of preordained dark harmony. At one point, I stared at the whole mess—the skin flaps, the quick little cuts, the bloody towel—and thought, This poor bastard isn’t going to make it. How could anyone survive this?

I remembered that I had survived this. Twice.

The video was thirteen minutes. I wanted to turn it off halfway through—it was past dinnertime, I had a blameless eggplant waiting for me—but I needed to see the surgeon sew the guy up.

He did. The last shot showed the patient with a gnarly-looking scar, stitched in little loops of black thread. It still didn’t show his face, only his chin. Just as well.

I am so incredibly grateful that I survived this procedure, so amazed that human beings can endure surgeries like this one and live. Our bodies truly are miracles. Although I couldn’t see the thyroid, I now know what saving actually looks like. The surgeon’s work is both messy and precise, a brutally beautiful, disquieting act of mercy.

And I’m never eating chicken again.




Marcia Trahan holds an MFA from Bennington. Her work has appeared in Fourth Genre, Anderbo, Blood Orange Review, Connotation Press, and elsewhere. “The End of Chicken” is an excerpt from her just-completed memoir, Mercy: A Story of Medicine, True Crimes, and Second Chances.  



(Front page image via)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *