How does receiving a cancer diagnosis affect your life? According to the American Cancer Society, an estimated 1.9 million new cases of cancer would be diagnosed in the United States in 2022.1 Unfortunately for me, I became part of the thyroid cancer statistics a few years ago.
Being diagnosed with cancer changed my life. I became depressed, faced physical limitations, and built relationships with doctors.
My cancer story is unique, just like every other story of a patient with cancer. Six years ago, in 2015, I visited my doctor for consistent shoulder pain. At the time, I had been traveling for work, so the doctor suspected that the pain came from my carry-on luggage, but she decided to send me for a CT scan of my shoulder and neck, just in case.
The scan came back abnormal, and I was referred to a “specialist.” At that time, I didn’t know that a specialist in this case was a surgeon, Dr. Brown. I was extremely nervous about my appointment, so my 2 sisters came along with me.
Once in the office, Dr. Brown told me that a lump had been found in my neck, and I had to have a biopsy before I left his office. He said that the biopsy would include 4 or 5 tissue samples. The experience was physically painful and emotionally draining.
After my biopsy results came back, Dr. Brown called me to discuss the results. I placed him on a speaker (so my family could hear), and he informed me that the biopsy showed a 20% chance of cancer, but because of the size of the lump in my neck, I should have surgery to remove it. (The lump was on my thyroid gland.) I vividly remember him telling me, “You will lose half your thyroid, but will be able to function like normal.”
The butterflies in my stomach were out of control on the day of my surgery. My sisters and I went to the hospital for my outpatient surgery. A few years back, I had emergency gallbladder surgery that didn’t go well, so another surgery was not an experience I was looking forward to. Eight hours later, I woke up in a hospital room with my sisters by my side.
Dr. Brown had come in to check on me and said that they located cancer in my thyroid, and it had spread to my lymph nodes, so they were forced to perform a thyroidectomy, which is removal of the entire thyroid. The news shocked me to my core, but at the same time I was almost numb. I immediately decided to learn as much about the thyroid gland and thyroid cancer.
According to the Society for Endocrinology, “The thyroid gland produces hormones that regulate the body’s metabolic rate, controlling heart, muscle and digestive function, brain development, and bone maintenance.”2
For me, the best way to explain the thyroid is to think of it as the body’s motor. The thyroid is responsible for keeping the human body functioning. People without a thyroid are dependent on a daily medication to run their bodies.
I also learned that the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) estimates that about 33,000 women get thyroid cancer a year, and about 1,000 die from it.3
Emotional & Physical Challenges
Thirty days after my surgery, I learned that I would need to see an endocrinologist for my treatment and for my lifelong care. At the time, I could barely pronounce the word “endocrinologist.” These were really tough days for me, emotionally and physically. I would cry over everything—I truly had no control over my emotions. Because of the tube in my neck, I struggled with sleeping, swallowing food, and moving.
In my first visit to the endocrinologist, I learned that I would need to use a low-iodine diet for 30 days, followed by radiation treatment. Although I was present at the appointment, I can’t say that I remember any of it. Once again, the shock and emotions had taken over. However, I remember the family meeting that followed.
Resources & Support
Quickly after my appointment, my family members found resources online for the low-iodine diet, and support groups to help me through the next steps. They located ThyCa: Thyroid Cancer Survivors’ Association (www.thyca.org), an organization for patients with thyroid cancer and their families that provides support groups, information, and a free cookbook for a low-iodine diet.
My sisters also located a low-iodine group on Facebook for patients with thyroid cancer. The Facebook group provides details on a low-iodine diet, along with pictures of proper food items. My sisters took ownership of all the shopping, labeling the food, and preparing low-iodine meals for me.
In addition, my family members fed me in bed, handled my medications, and even cared for my incision. I should have been more responsible for myself, but I don’t know what I would have done without them.
The low-iodine diet was not fun, because of its limitations, and I now call it my “sadness food,” because of my emotions while following this diet.
The radiation treatment was worse. For safety, I went to the radiation appointment alone, was given a radiation pill, waited 30 minutes, and then was sent home. I was instructed to isolate myself from everyone for at least 7 days. For 7 days, I was isolated to my room and bathroom. No one could visit or stop by to see me. I had food prepared in the freezer, and after day 3, my family delivered food outside the door for me.
My coworkers prepared me with magazines, coloring books, and a Netflix watch list. However, I had no strength to do any of those things. The isolation added to my mental health issues, and drove me into a deeper depression.
Since the day of my surgery and the radiation treatment, my life has not been the same. My new reality now consists of regular doctor appointments. Every 6 months I visit my endocrinologist, undergo bloodwork, and have an ultrasound of my neck.
My medication keeps me in a hypothyroid state (low thyroid hormone levels), to ensure that the cancer does not come back. If the cancer comes back, I have to have another surgery to remove it. Since my initial surgery, I’ve had 1 additional surgery to remove cancer cells.
Currently, I have 1 lymph node that contains cancer, but I was told it’s not big enough for surgery. So, every 6 months, I face the stress of wondering what my thyroid levels and the ultrasound result will be. Every 6 months I wonder what my life will be like.
A Cycle of Stress
The stress of my situation caused my depression to worsen. I now have been dealing with a cancer diagnosis, scheduling appointments, attending appointments, and taking daily medication. Because of my hypothyroidism state, I am constantly tired and my body is in turmoil.
My heart rate has increased drastically; I cannot sleep most nights; and I cannot eat certain foods, because they negatively interact with my medication.
The increased fatigue has affected my life in ways I had never expected. My body now gives up halfway through the day. My “battery” becomes so drained, that if I try to push myself, I end up on the floor, in pain. I’ve pushed myself past my limits before, and ended up on the floor; it was not fun.
Back at work, my coworkers are aware of my condition and keep an eye on me. I don’t normally like to share my situation with people, but my close friends are aware of it. If they see that I’m getting weak or looking tired, they call my family. They make sure that I stay healthy, and they have been great at not sharing my information with others.
Benefits of Self-Care
Going through this has made me an advocate for self-care, and has helped me understand the importance of family, friends, and good doctors. Self-care can look and feel different for every patient with cancer.
Several things helped me. First, I joined support groups. Hundreds of support groups are available online and on social media. Self-care also includes eating right, having some type of physical activity daily, and listening to your doctors.
And I started practicing “me time.” I define “me time” as spending 10 minutes a day without a TV or social media—time to enjoy the sun, the quiet, and time with my thoughts. This isn’t always easy, but I have found the benefits to be amazing for my mental health.
There are also apps available to help with “you time”: my favorite is the “Calm” app. Finally, I am learning to ask for help, when I need it, and lean on my support system.
- American Cancer Society. Cancer Facts & Figures 2022. www.cancer.org/research/cancer-facts-statistics/all-cancer-facts-figures/cancer-facts-figures-2022.html.
- Society for Endocrinology. Thyroid Gland. Updated March 2018. www.yourhormones.info/glands/thyroid-gland.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Thyroid Cancer. Updated March 8, 2021. www.cdc.gov/cancer/thyroid/index.htm.