The thyroid is a butterfly-shaped gland located just below the Adam’s apple. Image credit: WebMD
I am one in 62,980.
That’s the number of Americans who will be diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 2014.
I was diagnosed in April 2014.
The thyroid is a butterfly-shaped gland just beneath your Adam’s apple. It secretes hormones into the blood stream to control the rate that every cell and organ turns nutrients into energy. Thyroid hormones control metabolism, growth, body temperature, muscle strength, appetite, and the health of your heart, brain, kidneys, and reproductive system.
If your thyroid doesn’t work properly – neither do you.
How many people have thyroid cancer?
A weird thing has been happening with thyroid glands over the last 30 years; they started turning cancerous. Thyroid cancer had traditionally been viewed as a rare occurrence, but it is now the ninth most common cancer in the United States and continues to increase rapidly in both women and men. Three of every four people diagnosed with thyroid cancer are women. (Yippee, ladies. We can have this and PMS!)
It’s not clear what is causing this upward trend in thyroid cancer diagnoses. Some think the increase is attributed to better diagnostic technologies, while some believe that other factors may be involved.
When the number of people diagnosed with a condition climbs inexplicably, doctors look for clues to help explain it. Because thyroid cancer is four times more common in women than in men, many consider estrogen to be a factor. Some studies have suggested thyroid cells have receptors for estrogen, and the female hormone might fuel the growth of thyroid cancer cells, just as it fuels some types of breast cancer cells.
The increase in thyroid cancer may also have a technological cause. Rates began to increase when x-ray radiation was being routinely used to diagnose and treat disease. These early ex-rays used stronger radiation, and the technology was used on everything from acne to show sizing.
How is thyroid cancer discovered?
Some people never know they have thyroid cancer unless an unrelated medical scan picks it up. However, many patients report symptoms such as:
- A lump in the neck, sometimes growing quickly.
- Swelling in the neck.
- Pain in the front of the neck, sometimes going up to the ears.
- Hoarseness or other voice changes that do not go away.
- Trouble swallowing.
- Trouble breathing.
My cancer revealed itself through a scan of my brain and spinal cord. The original scan identified a neuromuscular disease and benign brain mass, and as a special bonus, doctors also found three nodules nestled in my thyroid gland. An ultrasound and needle biopsy confirmed one of the masses was filled with papillary carcinoma. My only symptoms were a perpetually sore throat and painful neck.
How is thyroid cancer treated?
Most patients go through a total thyroidectomy and neck dissection after cancer cells are discovered. A surgeon removes the thyroid gland and neighboring lymph nodes to eliminate the source of cancer and check on its potential spread. This is usually followed by hormone therapy. Because your body can no longer make thyroid hormones, you must take artificial ones to keep your body functioning. The hormones also suppress any potential new growth of thyroid cells.
If the physician feels some remnant cells have remained after surgery, he may prescribe a treatment with radioactive iodine. Cancer cells and any remaining thyroid cells absorb the radiation and die off.
How can you protect yourself?
The Thyroid Cancer Survivors’ Association (ThyCa) is promoting a “Find it Early” campaign to encourage people to ask their doctors about neck checks and tell them about any lump or fullness in the neck, lymph node swelling, difficulty breathing or swallowing, or voice changes. All of these be early symptoms of thyroid cancer. To learn more about thyroid cancer, visit ThyCa at www.thyca.org.
This is a thyroidectomy scar. No reason to cover it up.
On a personal note
I am five months into my treatment for thyroid cancer, and I have my share of both good and bad days. My scar is right there in the center of my neck, and I refuse to cover it up. It’s part of who I am.
The synthetic hormones are currently causing me to deal with a rough case of hypothyroidism, which has caused some hair loss, weight gain, muscle aches, problems with cold temperature, fatigue and occasional bad attitude. Unlike celebrity thyroid cancer patients like Sophia Vergara or Brooke Burke, I’m a grumpy and chubby woman with bad hair and a cardigan. However, I keep reminding myself this is temporary and it is significantly better than having cancer cells growing in my body.
Since my diagnosis, I have met eight other adults who were recently diagnosed or treated for thyroid cancer: four from my church, one from my website, the sister of a dear college friend, the spouse of my husband’s coworker, and a woman who has been my second mom.
Related Stories from Roadkill Goldfish
What your friends with cancer want you to know (but are afraid to say)
Talking with kids: Mama has cancer, but life goes on.