“I feel something.”
Not necessarily the words you want to hear while lying on an exam table, but in May of 2016, I did. During the start of a breast exam, my doctor found a lump, but it wasn’t where you’d expect.
It was during an annual exam with my new gynecologist, Dr. Susan Futayyeh when she found a large mass buried in my neck. I was terrified. Quickly after the appointment, I had an ultrasound, which determined the need for a biopsy. Ten angst-filled days later, I received the call confirming that the mass was Papillary Thyroid Carcinoma.
According to the American Cancer Society, there were about 53,990 new cases of Thyroid Cancer in 2018 and 40,900 of them were women. Nearly three out of four cases are in women; a staggering statistic. However, for unclear reasons, the American Cancer Society says that thyroid cancers occur about three times more often in women than in men.
While Dr. Futayyeh agrees that gender disparity in Thyroid Cancer is poorly understood, she acknowledges that its effects on women are far reaching. “If the thyroid is completely removed, there can be post-op hormone adjustment.” Finding the right dose of synthetic thyroid hormone can take some time. She continues, “Women can experience extreme fatigue, weight fluctuations, hair and skin changes, and mood disturbances.”
This is a cancer that overwhelmingly affects women; however, prior to my appointment with Dr. Futayyeh, not a single OB/GYN had ever touched me above the shoulders. Dr. Futayyeh’s approach is comprehensive for good reason, “I try to do a comprehensive exam, because for many women, I am the only physician they see on a regular basis.”
Quickly after I received the diagnosis, we met with my surgeon and scheduled a complete thyroidectomy. I came through a successful surgery only to find out that because of the type and size of the tumor, I needed the additional treatment of Radioactive Iodine. It’s a complex treatment that utilizes poisonous iodine to seek out any remaining thyroid tissue and possible cancer cells and destroys them.
It was a dizzying time. While the focus, understandably, was on my health and well-being, I had two small children to take care of, too. At the time, our kids were eight and four, and I worried continually about how my emotional and physical state was affecting them. I landed in my pediatrician’s office when I noticed our son was having trouble sleeping. “Children often pick up subtle clues that something isn’t right,” says pediatrician, Dr. Shelley Martin. “In fact, they often think up much worse scenarios than the reality.”
My son was definitely picking up on my stress, so it was important for me to reassure him in ways that he could understand. Dr. Martin continues, “One of the most important things a mother can do is to explain what is happening in terms the child can understand.” My maternal instincts wanted to shield my children from what was going on, but in reality, that probably wasn’t helping. “As a mother, we want to protect our children from worry, but most children, even toddlers, are extremely intuitive.” Says Dr. Martin. She encouraged me to be honest with them. “Even young children understand the concept of ‘feeling sick’ and needing the care of a doctor.” She continues, “You can say, ‘I’m scared,’ because they are too, and that assures them that it’s okay to feel that way.”
I never once second guessed going through the surgery and treatment, as I would do whatever it took to rid my body of cancer and ensure the longest life possible with my family; however, these things didn’t come without long-lasting effects.
The Radioactive Iodine treatment damaged my salivary glands resulting in the need for a Sialendoscopy; a surgical procedure that involves flushing out the glands to remove radiation debris, and a steroid treatment to encourage normal saliva production. The radiation also damaged my body’s thermostat nerves, resulting in an inability to effectively process heat. Within a year after treatment, my menstrual cycle went haywire, resulting in the need for a uterine ablation.
Whether it’s the cancer, loss of the thyroid gland, or far too much general anesthesia over the past few years, my brain no longer functions like it used to. I remember less, sometimes search for words, and simply don’t process things like I used to. It’s not all bad though, because as a result, I’ve become more relaxed and more willing to show the world my imperfect self.
While I continue to encounter changes from my pre-cancer life, I remain focused on my health and work at being patient. Dr. Futayyeh encourages women faced with any type of health crisis, “Having a family support system is an intricate part of the journey.” Life may not look the same after cancer, so it’s important for women to allow themselves time to adjust. She continues, “After Thyroid Cancer, women will eventually be back to normal, it may be a ‘new normal’.” Dr. Martin agrees and reminds mothers that our children, too can be a part of our support system. She encourages us, “Remember, no matter where the journey takes you, it’s going to be okay if you support each other.