I remember it like it was yesterday. It was a cold February morning in 2021 and she briskly walked into my office, turned her head to the side, and right there at the base of her neck on the right side was a lump. A big one. I swallowed hard.

This was my younger sister. She was in town for the winter before going back up to Jackson Hole, Wyoming for the summer. We don’t see each other frequently but when we do we act like sisters. We laugh a lot, mostly at each other, and are each other’s biggest cheer leaders in life. She’s my walking buddy when she’s in town and we solve the world’s problems. We live very different lives, but I have a connection with her that I have with no other person on the planet.

That morning, when she said, “do you think I need to be concerned?” my stomach dropped and instantly I wanted to cry. I knew it was not going to be a good outcome. I knew it was cancer. It wasn’t her first time hearing the words. In fact she’s had melanoma and two other types of skin cancer in the past. But this time it was thyroid cancer -papillary thyroid carcinoma to be exact. It felt more invasive.

Although this type of cancer is a slow growing, in her case it is suspected that it had been growing for many years. In retrospect, she had thyroid symptoms that was only ever tested with your basic TSH (thyroid stimulating hormone) and not looked into further.  Even with the large lump on the right side of her neck she was dismissed by two doctors before having a biopsy. She had to fight to have it explored more thoroughly.

Facts About Thyroid Cancer

Thyroid cancer is usually diagnosed at a younger age than many other cancers. In fact, the average age is 51, yet she was nearly 10 years younger than average. The cause is poorly understood, however it is thought to involve a combination of both genetic and environmental factors. Every female on my maternal side of the family has thyroid dysfunction, mostly hypothyroidism or Hashimoto’s disease (you can read about my diagnosis here). To date, she is the only one with thyroid cancer, and my hope is that it stays that way.

According to the American Cancer Society, thyroid cancer is about 70% more common in white people, and three times more common in women than men. The detection of thyroid cancer is often done during imaging tests such as CT or MRI scans. This imaging is frequently completed for other medical conditions because there are often no symptoms of thyroid cancer. The most common sign is a bulge in the neck.

The treatment can vary from surgery, hormone therapy, radioactive iodine, radiation, and sometimes chemotherapy. The survival rate is high, with a 98% survival rate after five years.

In her case, she had surgery to remove the thyroid, three parathyroid glands, and forty lymph nodes in the neck. The tumor had wrapped around her jugular vein and esophagus and her surgery was more complicated than originally thought. The lymph nodes were clear and free of cancer cells. She has a gnarly scar on her neck as a reminder to the world and herself that she’s a badass! She beat cancer. AGAIN!

Follow Up

Today she continues to be followed by the exceptional team at M.D. Anderson Medical Center. Since her entire thyroid has been removed, she takes daily thyroid medication to replace her natural thyroid hormone production. This will be a necessity for the rest of her life. She has this year’s annual follow-up at the end of January, when we will all breath a sigh of relief when she gets the “all clear.”

Thyroid Neck Check

With January being Thyroid Awareness Month I encourage you to do a thyroid neck check. Here’s how to do it:

  • STEP ONE: Stand in front of a mirror with a glass of water.
  • STEP TWO: Looking at the mirror, focus on the lower front area of your neck, above the collarbone, but below the voice box. This is where your thyroid is located.
  • STEP THREE: While focusing on this area, tip your head back, take a drink of water, and swallow. As you swallow, look at your neck. Check for any budges or protrusions. Remember the Adam’s apple is not the thyroid gland.
  • STEP FOUR: If you see any bulges go see your physician, as your thyroid glad may be enlarged or you may have a nodule.
  • STEP FIVE: Encourage your family and friends to do the same test. This is simple enough to spread awareness, and you just may change someone’s life.

 

Thyroid dysfunction is very common. Thyroid cancer is scary. But it’s treatable. Catch it early and encourage others to do the same.