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February 23, 2017

The truth about living with thyroid cancer, the so-called good cancer

Imagine forgetting how to drive – while you’re in the middle of traffic.

Follow that with muscle aches and fatigue – just a few hours after waking up.

Lose patches of hair every time your hand touches your head.

Feel your entire digestive system shut down and beg for the gods of Miralax to be merciful.

Then have someone tell you to count your blessings because you had thyroid cancer, the “good cancer.”

They don’t know you have to live with the side effects of that good cancer.

For the rest of your life.

Living with thyroid cancer is a lifetime

Image credit: WebMD
Image credit: WebMD

This is my life and it’s the life for roughly the 62,000 Americans who are diagnosed with thyroid cancer each year.

Many physicians say if you’re going to get cancer, thyroid cancer is the one to get because it has a high survival rate. Most patients have their thyroid gland surgically removed and then ingest radioactive iodine to kill off any remnant cells, which is still a grueling treatment, but not as severe as the triple threat of surgery, radiation and chemotherapy.

Nonetheless, thyroid cancer leaves behind a new threat – lifetime treatment. 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. Without them, the body will shut down and die.

Now imagine you have that good cancer. Without your thyroid gland, you can neither create nor secrete these hormones in your body and must take replacement thyroid hormones to survive. For the rest of your life. The dose must be precise because these hormones also help suppress the growth of any remaining thyroid cells what could produce hormones – and malignancies- on their own. Too little hormone will make the body slow down and trigger cell growth. Too much will damage the heart and nervous system. Both extremes can cause death.

It can take years to get the right dose, and even then, it requires constant monitoring. That’s why so many thyroid cancer patients spend so much time in hormonal limbo and battle seemingly perpetual symptoms such as fatigue, confusion, hair loss, slow metabolic responses, and jacked-up hormones everywhere else in the body. That’s why so many patients have
recurring cancer.

So much for a “good cancer.”

Why is thyroid cancer a problem?

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.

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 x-rays used stronger radiation, and the technology was used on everything from acne to shoe 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.

September is Thyroid Cancer Awareness Month

Thyroid Cancer Awareness Month promotes thyroid cancer awareness for early detection, as well as care based on expert standards, and increased research to achieve cures for all thyroid cancer. To learn more about thyroid cancer, please go to www.thyca.org.

 

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