I was brushing my hair one morning when I noticed a bulging, round lump in my neck. “That’s a weird place for an Adam’s apple,” I thought. I swallowed, and it moved up and down. I knew something was not right. I told my mom and made arrangements to see a doctor.
When I visited the doctor, he felt my lump and said it was a thyroid nodule. He explained that 90% of nodules are benign. I had bloodwork and labs done, all of which seemed to indicate that my thyroid was functioning normally. The doctor ordered an ultrasound just to be safe.
“But you’re so young,” the radiologist said as she performed and read the ultrasound. I was only nineteen. She didn’t reveal the cancer diagnosis to me at that moment, but she couldn’t hide her concern about the calcifications in my tumor. The next step was a fine needle aspiration biopsy, which came back positive for papillary thyroid carcinoma.
The doctors tried to reassure me. “If you’re gonna get cancer, this is the best kind you can get. If I were to get cancer, I would want that kind.” But who wants cancer?
The next step was to meet with a surgeon about my thyroidectomy. I met with a couple of surgeons, and it took a while to find the right one. I asked how many thyroidectomies they do a year and how familiar they are with the procedure. To anyone starting a similar journey, I would highly recommend being intentional about finding a surgeon who makes you feel comfortable.
I had my thyroid removed and had a central node dissection. They discovered cancer in my lymph nodes and sent me to an endocrinologist. I later received Radioactive Iodine (RAI) treatment and found out I had Hashimoto’s, even though my bloodwork was normal. Again, I was reassured that this was “the best cancer to have.” I would just have to take a pill for the rest of my life.
As it turns out, my journey was not that simple. I continued to meet with my doctors every six months, and I grew more worried. Though my thyroglobulin was undetectable, my antibodies kept rising and rising. The increase was slow but persistent over four years. My doctors weren’t concerned, but I had to advocate for myself. I decided to get another ultrasound, which revealed two more suspicious lymph nodes. The biopsies came back positive for papillary thyroid carcinoma.
I had a bilateral lymph node dissection, which left me with a big old necklace scar. After that, I met with another doctor who had my slides tested for genomic markers. The results indicated that I had RET fusion, which affected my prognosis. RAI would not be a good option this time around.
Several months later, I had another ultrasound which revealed more suspicious lymph nodes. I had surgery for the third time. The surgeons removed ten lymph nodes, two of which were positive for cancer. This time, they were confident that they had gotten it all. Since then, my thyroid antibodies have dropped significantly.
Though I am now in remission and doing well, I know that this “best kind of cancer I could have” will always be a pain in the neck (pun intended). Still, I wear my scar proudly; it is a badge of honor. I battled cancer three times now, and I am still here alive and kicking.
Facing my mortality at such a young age really made me think about how life can change in the blink of an eye. I’ve learned to live like I don’t have tomorrow and focus on doing what I can to feel my best. For me, that includes surrounding myself with loving family and friends and standing up for myself as my own biggest advocate.
Will You Share Your Journey?
April is Oral Cancer Awareness Month. As part of that theme, we post stories written by oral cancer survivors, caregivers and medical professionals for our 30 Stories in 30 Days™ campaign. The insights they share can help others along their journey.