September is Thyroid Cancer Awareness Month

In addition to September being NICU awareness month, it is also thyroid cancer awareness month. Two really big issues for our family slammed into a single month.

My thyroidectomy scar and reason for living in a single picture

Justin and I don’t do anything small. Most recently, we closed on our house and were matched with a baby in the same month. For the record, I advise spreading out major life events as much as possible.

However, this isn’t the first time that we’ve had the Universe decide that we need a bunch of big events all at the same time. On June 18, 2015, we had our sixth wedding anniversary. We also closed on our Michigan house in the middle of nowhere. I also got a call from my doctor telling me that my biopsy results were in, that I had thyroid cancer, and that my thyroid needed to come out ASAP. Yeah, it was a wild day. At least I got to have chicken schwarma from our favorite place. (This was before we decided to go vegetarian.)

As I remember it — which isn’t well since one of the many things my thyroid took from me is my memory — I thanked my doctor for the news. She commented that I was taking it rather calmly and it wasn’t how she expected me to take it. Here’s the thing… I was happy to finally have an answer for what was going on with me.

For most people, generally women are affected with this type of cancer, the nodules are found incidental to another scan. Essentially, the thyroid just happens to be in the picture when the doctors are wanting to look at something else. Furthermore, very rarely are thyroid nodules cancerous. Most people have nodules and for most people they present zero issues.

This is not how my cancer presented itself.

In November 2013, about 18 months before my diagnosis, I started have massive heart palpitations. It was like running a marathon while sitting down. As soon as my heart started racing all rational thought and abilities went out the window. It was so bad that I ended up in the emergency room hooked up to a monitor. Of course, my heart decided to chill out then and they couldn’t see anything. I went to my primary care doctor for follow-up and was told that it was all in my head. (I can’t stand the way women are treated by medical professionals quite often.) Still dealing with the palpitations and fatigue, I soldiered on.

I saw my OB/GYN the following February for my annual appointment. Thankfully she had been treating me for two years at this point and knew my history. She said that she had never seen me that exhausted, frustrated, or in so much pain before and vowed to find me answers. She ordered a battery of blood work that revealed the presence of TPO antibodies and a high ANA. This earned me a referral to a rheumatologist.

Several months later they were able to get me in. Based on my history and symptoms, I didn’t have lupus. However, the TPO antibodies earned me a diagnosis of Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. Essentially, your body attacks your thyroid gland causing it to release the wrong amount of thyroid hormone. I was also diagnosed with Reynaud’s phenomenon due to my extremely cold hands and feet. Finally, they palpated my neck and found that my thyroid felt larger than normal. This got me an order for a thyroid ultrasound and a referral to an endocrinologist.

Several months later… again… I was able to get an appointment with the endocrinologist’s physician’s assistant. (Pro Tip: Take any appointment they offer you. If it’s bad enough, they’ll find a way to get you in with the doctor.) The PA seemed to think that nothing was really wrong with me, but started me on a low dose of thyroid hormones to see if that might help my symptoms and said that while she thought my ultrasound looked fine that the doctor preferred to read them herself. I am very lucky about that. A few days later, I got the call that I needed to have a biopsy of my thyroid.

This is the part when things started to move a bit faster.

A few days later, I was scheduled for the biopsy and it happened at the end of that week. See what I mean about appointments being created out of thin air when things are bad? The biopsy itself wasn’t too bad. The doctor numbed my neck and used an ultrasound to guide the needle. They had a pathologist in the room to verify that they had enough cells to analyze. It was maybe a 30 minute procedure.

A few days later is when I got the call.

Once the cancer diagnosis was made, treatment was straightforward. I was referred to a surgeon at the University of Michigan and six weeks later — the earliest date he had available on his calendar — my thyroid was removed. In the time between the biopsy and surgery, my cancer doubled in size. I was lucky that it didn’t metastasize to my lymph nodes. I started hormone replacement immediately and was discharged from the hospital two days later. The following December, when I had winter break from my first semester as a professor, I underwent radioactive iodine treatment and was quarantined for three weeks.

The moral of my story is to keep pushing for answers and advocate for yourself. You know your body best and know if something is wrong.

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