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Check Your Neck: The Skinny on Thyroid Cancer

When folks learn I've had thyroid cancer, they always ask "how'd you know?"

Truth is, I didn't have a clue. I was 33. I felt great.

Nothing hurt.

Nothing seemed odd.

MY THYROID LEVELS WERE NORMAL. I didn’t realize that women around my age are the ones who should be checking for this type of cancer (we're 3 times more likely to have thyroid cancer than men!). It’s not as simple as "getting your levels checked." You can have normal thyroid levels and have thyroid cancer.

The first inkling that something wasn’t right came randomly – a doctor’s visit for a completely unrelated sinus issue. During the routine check, my ENT found a tiny nodule in my thyroid area. Frankly, I had no idea where my thyroid was or that I should check there for lumps. Boobs? Yep. Thyroid? Nope. 

thyroid
Think the thyroid is up top? It's actually much lower down on the neck (see my pretty scar?)

 

The doc told me that these nodules were almost always benign, but that I should follow up with an endocrinologist, just to be safe. As a busy mom of (then) two, I almost blew it off. Thank God they made the referral and appointment for me.

Because my levels were normal and the lump was palpable (doc speak for "can feel it in a neck check"), I got an ultrasound, then a biopsy. This doc also assured me that the likelihood of it being cancer was low. Well, duh, I thought. Cancer is for “other people,” not healthy people like me.

Y'all, I completely forgot all about the biopsy until I got the call. It was cancer. I ping-ponged between complete devastation and thankfulness. It was caught early. Although the prognosis was good, I was a hot mess. I instantly envied everyone who didn't have cancer. And I was scared, because I didn't yet know how far it had spread.

Most of all, I wanted to punch anyone in the face who told me this was “the good cancer”. There. Is. No. Good. Cancer. 

Full disclosure: I worried about my kids. For the first time, I thought those irrational and scary thoughts. Will I die? What if the cancer spread? Why don’t I hug my kids more? How am I going to do this?  Cancer completely realigned my focus to what was and wasn’t truly important. I prioritized my life. In retrospect, it was the best thing that ever happened to me.

I had surgery to remove my entire thyroid, and after a few months of unexpected complications, I underwent treatment successfully.

You're wondering what that is, right? Treatment for my type (papillary) wasn’t what you think of as “cancer treatment,” like chemo or radiation. I took a pill of radioactive iodine, which made me radioactive, to kill the rest of the thyroid tissue in my body. Instead of going to a Cancer Clinic, my treatment was administered at the Nuclear Medicine area of a hospital. I had to be in complete isolation (no people or pets). Yes, it was weird. No, my pee didn’t glow in the dark (that was a real bummer).

The good news is that I’m 5+ years cancer free, thanks to early detection. I have a new normal. I can’t lie and say that I feel the same that I did before I said adios to my thyroid. I take a pill every day to function as my missing gland, and that’s mildly annoying. But I'm here. I'm healthy. And I was even able to have a baby after cancer! I know what it means to be #blessed.

So mamas, whether it’s a mammogram or an annual checkup, don’t wait. I hope the visit is simply an annoyance to your busy schedule, and nothing more. But if you’re reading this, you’re probably in the demographic where thyroid cancer is hitting hard or have a loved one who is. You owe it to yourself and to those precious babies of yours to check your neck. I’m glad I did.

 

 

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