Bringing Awareness to Thyroid Cancer
Words by Hannah Lacy
Have you ever tried to drive a car while it was on empty? I imagine it was difficult. Either the car didn't start at all, or it did start but stopped shortly after you started driving. Trying to drive a car with no fuel is very similar to how it feels living with a body that has a thyroid disease or imbalance. The body serves a similar function as a car. It helps take us from one place or activity to the next. Sadly a body with an imbalanced thyroid or no thyroid at all isn't getting the thyroid hormone it needs to regulate your metabolic rate which affects your energy levels, body weight, digestive function, muscle control, and bone maintenance just to name a few.
As a millenial and a woman I am used to pushing myself, as I'm guessing most of us twenty-somethings and females are expected to. I ignored the sleeplessness and the signs of stress because I thought that's what I was supposed to do. I was a new mother, newlywed, and promoted to management at a job where I was working overtime. We each have a different set of life circumstances, but we can all relate to not getting enough sleep and having hectic and demanding schedules.
It was during this season of life that I had a health screening done for work. The doctor felt a lump in my neck and lab work showed thyroid levels that were out of range. This led to more lab work, a thyroid ultrasound, a biopsy, and CT scan that all confirmed the same thing. I had papillary thyroid cancer stage two, and needed to have my thyroid removed. When you are told you have cancer of any kind, regardless of how excellent the prognosis might be, your first thought isn't "I'm lucky"; it's "How is this going to change my life?".
What I didn't realize was how common thyroid cancer is in women, and how it has been on the rise in recent years. According to the American Cancer Society, thyroid cancer is the 5th most common cancer in women, especially between the ages of 20-34. And the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists states there are also at least 30 million Americans that have a thyroid disorder and half are undiagnosed, with women being 10 times more likely to have a thyroid problem. For being so common there is not a lot of awareness on the issue. I think society as a whole has grown apathetic to hearing cancer and health statistics. We may each have different genes and environments, but stress is a major contributor to the immune system breaking down, which can cause different diseases and hormone imbalances.
That summer in 2015, I had a total thyroidectomy (thyroid removal) and the accidental removal of several parathyroids (calcium producers). I had to stop nursing my son immediately as I was unable to move my neck for several weeks. I stepped down from my job because I couldn't return after my vacation and sick time was up. I lost my voice for two months. But mostly I remember the weeks and months of haziness, brain fog, headaches, fatigue, exhaustion, and weight gain that followed. I remember showing up for work or events after surgery and faking "normalcy". This surgery changed my life, but left only one small outward piece of evidence: a scar on my neck that has faded with time.
I wish I had been told how long recovery would be, that it would take two years to find the right prescription, that it would require a major lifestyle change. But mostly I wish I had believed that I was worth it. Worth saying "no" to extra commitments, worth making the doctor appointment for, worth paying extra for vitamins, worth making time for rest. So, I am telling you: You are worth taking care of. Struggling with a disease that others can't see has taught me a bit about overcoming. Overcoming isn't climbing the mountain. It is waking up every morning and trying - despite the pain, tiredness, and anxiety.
Struggling with thyroid problems the past few years has taught me about health. Health has more to do with the condition of your body than the size of it. It is about having strength, endurance, and energy. TT (total thyroidectomy) patients typically gain 10 pounds a year after surgery, even with a healthy diet and physical activity. And taking synthyroid (thyroid hormone replacement) over a long period of time leads to weight gain. I've decided to take care of my body regardless of its size, and to feed it nutritional foods.
September is Thyroid Cancer awareness month. There are several things you can do to take care of yourself. Get your neck checked by a doctor for any lumps or swelling. Have a doctor, OB, or endocrinologist check your thyroid levels. If you are under producing or over producing, this can usually be fixed with a prescription. Eat healthy foods to take care of your body, not to lose weight. Don't compare your body or your journey to someone else's. Lastly, your invisible illness may not be thyroid related. It might be depression, anxiety, or a different physical challenge. Share your struggles with others you trust. You will often find that you are not alone, and this helps us all to overcome.
Hannah Lacy is a wife to her high school sweetheart and mother to an energetic toddler boy with a baby on the way. She Loves to tell stories through words and photos. She aspires to live a simple and conscious life after cancer in the beautiful state of Texas.