Thyroid Cancer — It’s (Not) All “Good”

Even though I have a list of posts I need to write a mile long, I went ahead and let this one cut in line because of its timeliness and importance. I don’t think the others will mind!

September is Thyroid Cancer Awareness Month. Chances are, you know of someone who’s had (or has) thyroid cancer. It’s one of the only cancers that’s actually increasing in numbers in this country. My youngest sister had thyroid cancer and was diagnosed right as she started college. There’s no good time to learn that you have cancer, but right when you’re starting life on your own is particularly devastating.

If you know someone with this type of cancer, you’ll also likely have heard it called “the good cancer.” I have mixed feelings about this. On one hand, it’s much better than being called “the bad cancer.” On the other hand, I think it minimizes what thyroid patients go through. Although the vast majority of patients with thyroid cancer survive and go on to life cancer-free lives, they are also left without thyroids in most cases, and have a lifetime of health issues to manage because of this.

My sister (and I really hope she doesn’t mind me blabbing all this!) had a thyroidectomy, followed by a radioactive iodine treatment, where she was in a hospital room where everything she touched had to be thrown away if it wasn’t covered in a radioactive-proof plastic. There was a huge sign on her door that said “CAUTION: RADIOACTIVE,” which I’m sure didn’t make her feel like a freak at all. She had to stay there until she had either sweat or peed out enough of the radioactivity to be declared safe to mingle with other life forms.

Her surgery left her with a scar across her neck, which has since faded considerably, but when it was fresh was pretty noticeable. People on campus asked her about it, if they were kind enough to not just stare. One guy even asked her if she tried to kill herself.

Yes, with a machete across the throat.

Some of her professors in college were less than understanding about the fact that she had to miss classes and generally felt horrible. One professor didn’t believe her. I’m pretty sure he felt differently after she ripped off the scarf she wore around her neck. At least I hope he did.

Since she had her thyroid removed, she has to take synthetic thyroid hormone on a daily basis. If you didn’t know, the thyroid regulates basically everything in your body. And believe me, if it gets out of whack you can feel so tired that you can barely get out of bed, sweat like a pig in July, or my favorite, “brain fog,” where you basically feel like an idiot incapable of coming up with the simplest of words. It’s like your brain has become detached from your body.

So obviously taking these supplements, and taking the correct dosage, is extremely important. You can imagine, then, how she feels when she has to go off these for several WEEKS before having a body scan, to make sure the cancer is still gone. It’s like someone hijacked part of your life.

Know the symptoms of thyroid cancer you can for look for yourself. Most have to do with the neck or throat:

  • A lump or nodule in the front part of the neck, near the Adam’s apple
  • Sensitivity in the neck area, such as with neckties, scarves, necklaces
  • Hoarseness, changes in the voice
  • Difficulty swallowing, feeling like you’re choking
  • Persistent or chronic cough, not due to allergies or illness
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Pain in the area from the neck to the ears
  • Asymmetry in the thyroid (if it’s big one one side and not on the other)

These are the main symptoms, however more aggressive forms of thyroid cancer can affect neurological function as well. (This type would not be considered the “good cancer.”)

DearThyroid has a great article on thyroid cancer. This site is great because it’s a tell-it-like-it-is source written by thyroid patients, and it’s funny too, which is always a plus.

Mary Shomon is probably the most knowledgeable non-doctor person in the world on thyroid disease. She is a contributor on About.com and has written several books on thyroid-related subjects. If you want to know anything about thyroid disease, start with her!

I was diagnosed with hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid) after Boy #2 was born. I literally felt like I was either dying or crazy or both. I knew something was WRONG with how I felt. It was beyond just “normal tired,” but I was assured (rather condescendingly, I might add), that I was just a working mom with two kids who was busy. After bugging the doctor to the point where I didn’t even care if she thought I was crazy, I convinced her to run tests. And she called later to say that I had the highest TSH levels (the higher the TSH levels, the less active your thyroid is) that she’d ever personally seen. Hmmm, ya think?

So this began my journey through the wonderful world of thyroid. Fortunately, I have not had thyroid cancer, so I don’t have to go through everything my sister did, but I have suffered through the ebbs and flows of thyroid secretion, and finding the right doctor, and right dosage, has been a real challenge. I was also diagnosed with Graves’ disease a few years ago, which means my thyroid produces too much thyroid hormone. I’m still not sure how I can be on both ends of the spectrum at the same time (I also have Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, which is an autoimmune disease that causes hypothyroidism), but I guess all that matters is that they make me feel better. For that I had to have a thyroid ablation, where they basically try to kill your thyroid using radioactive iodine. Fortunately, I didn’t have to stay in the hospital, but I did have to swallow a pill, was told not to sleep or lay next to my children for several days and to flush the toilet twice. Really, those were about all of my instructions. Makes you feel safe, huh? Needless to say, I stayed with a friend who didn’t have kids, just to be safe. And I did flush her toilet twice.

Ooh, and I haven’t even mentioned the weight gain yet. Yeah, that’s fun too. Being hypothyroid slows down your metabolism, not to mention that you’re too dog-tired to exercise anyway, so that you usually gain weight. And since your metabolism is compromised, you have to work twice as hard to get it back off. Obviously there are much worse fates than gaining weight, but it does become a frustrating battle that you know will continue throughout your lifetime. Right now I am at a weight that I never thought I would see, except during my 8th or 9th month of pregnancy. (And I’m currently not doing a darn thing to get that weight off. I’m starting NEXT WEEK, though. Yep, really, I am…)

If you have some of the symptoms of thyroid cancer, please, see a doctor. It’s not a hard one to diagnose, and the sooner you start treatment, the better. And if you’ve experienced unexplained weight gain, fatigue, dry mouth, body temperature fluctuations, or you just don’t feel like yourself, ask a doctor to check your thyroid. They’ll do a physical exam and at least a TSH blood test. However, a more thorough work up will include T3 and T4 tests as well. Mary Shomon explains the different blood tests, and what they test for, here. Thyroid disease is hereditary, so if someone in your family has it, the more likely you are to develop it as well.

Statistics show that out of every 10 people diagnosed with thyroid disease, 7 to 8 are women. Many experts think this is because many of the cases of thyroid disease are caused from an autoimmune condition, which occur more in women than men. So ladies, get yourselves checked out if there is any question in your mind about thyroid disease or cancer. And while you’re waiting for the doctor appointment, check out one of these great books on the subject. I’ve read several of them and have really benefited from their information and advice!

Image found here on sxc.com. The thyroid is called “the butterfly gland” because of it’s shape.
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