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Surviving thyroid cancer
In 1999 I was a teacher and young mother with a 2 yr old daughter and a 4 yr old son at home. Routinely, in the spring, my voice would give out and I would come down with laryngitis. I always put it down to a hazard of the job. Being a teacher at the elementary level, it was a given that my voice would be taxed and eventually need a break. I was used to that. Similarly to previous years around April I lost my voice. What was different this time was the absence of the fever and fatigue which had accompanied my laryngitis in previous years. Since I was feeling fine physically, I continued to go to work. I whispered to my students that we would be speaking with our 'quiet' voices so that they could hear me. They thought it was great fun and I continued to teach for a few days in that manner until a colleague of mine cornered me one day and frightened me by explaining that even by whispering I could be permanently damaging my vocal chords. She counseled that I should go see my doctor immediately.
Since my family doctor was unavailable I went to an After Hours Clinic. The doctor on duty that day was very thorough in his examination. He found no inflammation. No redness or irritation. No sign of infection at all. He was a bit perplexed until he began palpating my neck. Then he uttered those fateful words which nobody wants to hear. "You are aware that you have a sizable lump on your thyroid?". My world suddenly went black. Up until that deafening question I had been just fine. My voice was taking a break ... that was all. Now here I was, alone, in a clinic with this doctor babbling on about a lump. He was actually able to show me the lump by asking me to tilt my head backwards he asked me to swallow and to look at my neck. Indicating a lump about the size of a nut at the base of my neck he was quick to point out, "Women don't have Adam's Apples. That is a growth on your thyroid and it is possible that since your vocal chords run between the lobes of the thyroid, this growth could be causing your voice problems." This diligent doctor subsequently sent me to the hospital for an ultrasound making sure that my family doctor would receive the paperwork in order to follow up with me.
Breaking the news to my husband was difficult after all, besides having lost my voice I was in seemingly fine health! Naturally it came as a shock to him and our families. We down-played the doctor's diagnosis awaiting for the ultrasound appointment which was going to dispel it as ridiculous. At the hospital I could tell that the ultrasound was not going well. The technician would not answer any of my questions and she was going over and over the same area again and again, constantly measuring. I was getting nervous. Finally she finished and asked me to remain in the room while she spoke to a doctor. At this point I was anxious. When the doctor arrived it was to tell me that he had examined my ultrasound and that there was not a lump... there were in fact two lumps on my thyroid. I felt faint as if someone had just punched me in the stomach and I was left gasping for air. How had I arrived at this point? Just a few days ago I was blissfully oblivious to the thought of cancer and now, at the mere mention of it, my world, my family, and my life were being threatened!
The next few days were a blur... tears, shock, and disbelief were fused together with hospital and doctor's visits. Now that they had determined that there were two growths on my thyroid a biopsy was needed. That procedure was quite an experience! I had a noon appointment for the biopsy at the hospital and was told to arrive a half hour prior to the scheduled time. I had not been advised to have someone accompany me that day so I went alone, thinking it was going to be much like a blood test. Had I known what to expect and how invasive the biopsy procedure was, I would have made sure to have my husband with me that day. In order to perform a thyroid biopsy an ultrasound is done simultaneously so that the specialist can see the growth on the monitor as he inserts the biopsy needle. Taking a specimen of the growth is the challenging part. The technician and the specialist involved were very kind and understanding towards me but nonetheless I was terrified. I was told to hold my breath and not move at all as the specialist attempted to insert the needle and stab at the growth, jabbing at it until he could obtain a sample. Unfortunately for both of us the lump seemed to avoid being stabbed and seemed to give the specialist the slip. This involved many attempts which were very painful for me and caused a lot of bruising. By the time he had obtained a sample of the first lump, I was ready to pass out. He asked me kindly if I wanted to return another day so we could biopsy the second one. I considered this for a moment and told him to go ahead and finish the job. When they were done, I was white as a sheet and sick to my stomach. I was told to eat something and regain my strength before they would allow me to drive home. It was almost a surreal experience for me... I was in shock and I felt violated by the disease that was soon to consume every aspect of my life.
The biopsy results were in. It was cancer but at an early stage and contained within those two growths. One month had passed since that fateful clinic visit. Ironically the mysterious disappearance of my voice was never solved because about a week after I left that clinic it suddenly returned as inexplicably as it had disappeared! It could not have been the case of the vocal chords being affected by the growths because nothing had been removed as yet. Why had I lost my voice? Had there been some kind of spiritual, divine intervention? Did my thyroid cancer need to be discovered and diagnosed? Was it all meant to be because that was part of my journey? At the time, honestly, I was not thankful. I was upset and feeling very sorry for myself. In retrospect, I am grateful. Grateful that the concientious doctor took the time to feel my neck and follow through on his suspicions. Grateful that the biopsy indicated cancer so that those growths could be removed. Grateful that it was discovered in the early stages before it had had time to spread and do more damage.
I was referred to a wonderful surgeon who specialized in thyroidectomies. In fact, he had also taken a plastic surgery specialty so that he could more effectively provide his thyroidectomy patients with less noticeable scars! Dr G. was kind, caring and very specialized in his field. He knew how to answer all of our questions, calm our fears, fuel our hopes realistically while ensuring that we knew we were in good hands. After one meeting with him I suddenly was confident that I could beat this and that this man would help us all through this. Dr G. explained that due to the location of the growths the left lobe and the isthmus of the thyroid gland would both have to be removed. One growth was 2cm in size and the other 1cm. He hoped that I would not require further treatment and that the hemi-thyroidectomy would solve our problem. The surgery was a success however the pathology report revealed that the entire growth removed had in fact been cancerous. No treatment was recommended other than shutting down the function of my existing right thyroid lobe. Dr G. had originally hoped that we could keep it active and functional. One can actually live with just a partial thyroid and one lobe is capable of providing the body of all the necessary thyroxin needed. Since the cancer was present, that lobe's activity and blood flow would have to be shut down so as to starve any rogue cancer cells instead of feeding them with daily activity. Taking a minimal dose of synthetic thyroxin worked and before long the blood tests indicated that my free T4 level was good and that my existing thyroid was only producing trace amounts of thyroxin.