“Something is going on with your thyroid.” This was not the response I was expecting from my ophthalmologist after I was just administered an eye exam. I was shocked.
And thus began my experience with thyroid cancer. Another curveball was thrown in my direction a few months later. My OBGYN told me I had a high TSH, but I didn’t even know what TSH was! I didn’t feel like I had any concerning symptoms. In fact, that year I had regularly seen a nutritionist and osteopath, and I was in great shape.
The next few months were a whirlwind of doctor’s appointments, with many surprises. My endocrinologist told me that I had a lot of activity within my thyroid bed and decided to monitor the situation. Over the next year and a half, I underwent two needle-biopsies. The biopsy results were coming back normal, but the doctors still noticed my thyroid was changing.
I’ll never forget the day I received my diagnosis in early December 2009. I was driving with my niece when my endocrinologist called me with more test results.
“Your pathology came back suspicious.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means you could have cancer.”
I almost crashed my car.
In the beginning, it was easy to be consumed by the news, but I was fortunate to be surrounded by really supportive people and excellent medical care. After that phone call, I was immediately referred to another team, the group of medical professionals who would eventually remove my thyroid that year.
Although 11 years have passed, I can easily remember the scents, sights and discussions in the operating room that morning: the smell of the surgeon’s coffee, the bright lights of the hospital, my preoperative chatter with the surgeon and anesthesiologist. What I recall even more clearly is how empowered I felt seeing my medical team, knowing that we were all in this together and realizing how dedicated they were to my treatment. Their smiles, laughter and composure put me at ease. How was it that I felt more nervous for a root canal than for a surgery to remove my thyroid?
The operation took over 3 hours. While I found having no thyroid unsettling, my recuperation was seamless. I woke up in the recovery room, cried for 3 seconds, then felt my hunger kick in. After finally eating and getting to drink coffee, I began making phone calls to family members and friends. My sister was shocked: “They just operated on your throat, I can’t believe you’re making phone calls!”
Luckily, I healed quickly. In my eyes, my surgeon was a craftsman—an artist at work. Other than one intense radioactive iodine treatment, I never had any serious side effects from my treatment. A few weeks later, I was able to go back to work. It was refreshing to be back with students all day.
I reflected on what helped me during my treatment. For me, social support and proper medical care were crucial. Whether it was a phone call from my dentist to check in on me, guidance from a colleague who also had thyroid cancer, or talking to my nieces and nephews, it was often the smallest actions that made the biggest difference. I was blessed to have so many people watching out for me.
In the end, there are a few pieces of advice that I would recommend to others who are going through something similar. Try not to fear the situation, because there is a good chance it is temporary. Prepare your body as well as possible through nutrition, mindfulness or meditation. Find something to keep yourself calm and grounded so you don’t spiral in anxiety. Find the people in your life that you can really count on for support. It can be one person or three people—the number of allies doesn’t matter. People like to feel dependable, and they like to support those they care about. It was helpful for me to remember that it is not a burden to reach out to those people.