When the Luck of the Draw Leads to the Short End of the Stick
Cancer is one of the most feared diseases. Everyone is affected by it in some way, but no one really imagines getting it themselves. So imagine hearing that you got the “good” cancer, a commonly used term for thyroid cancer. That can’t be right. Cancer is cancer…isn’t it? But who are we, as patients, to question what our doctors tell us? They’re the ones who went to medical school and have years of training. But maybe thyroid cancer isn’t that bad?
That’s what I thought when I was told that my cancer was the “good” one by more than one doctor. In fact, one doctor told me that thyroid cancer was “the cancer to have if you had to get it.” I didn’t have any symptoms at the time, so I took these words, spoken to me by medical professionals, as truth. Unfortunately, I learned that there was no such thing as a “good” cancer once I began treatment.
While thyroid cancer is slow-growing, does have a very good prognosis, and can be easily treatable, no cancer is the same. For example, I had the papillary variant of thyroid cancer, a common diagnosis amongst most thyroid cancer patients. I underwent surgery to remove half of the thyroid with the tumor, but my treatment didn’t end there. It was discovered in the pathology report that I had metastasis that was not shown on the original ultrasound that showed the tumor in my thyroid. As a result, I had to undergo a second surgery for the removal of the remaining half of my thyroid. Additionally, I was told by my surgeon that, because of the metastasis, he didn’t know if cancer could be elsewhere in my body, and I would need to undergo oral radiation therapy. “Wasn’t this the ‘good’ cancer?” I thought over and over.
Furthermore, what doctors don’t explain, at least very well in my case, is what not having a thyroid is going to be like. I wasn’t aware of what a thyroid was nor its functions when I was told that it was harboring a tumor. Nor did I know until I had to be placed on a supplement, or rather a replacement, for my lack of thyroid. I learned quickly that the thyroid essentially interacts with every other system in the body through controlling metabolism, heart rate, temperature, energy level, etc. My body slowly adjusted to this new medication with a prescribed dose that was initially “simply a guess” based on my age, weight, and overall health. From there, my healthcare team and I adjust the dose based on how my body responds. If I think about this, especially as a woman, my body goes through many changes as I age, and I’m sure many of them are affected by a properly-functioning thyroid, which I no longer have. I’m not saying that I’m not eternally grateful for their actually being a supplement I can take to, quite literally, live, on a daily basis. What I am saying is that the stigma and the choice of words and phrases surrounding this cancer, perpetuated by medical professionals needs to stop. At the very least, they need to recognize thyroid cancer as a cancer, a diagnosis that inevitably impacts the life, good or bad, of every patient who has this terrible disease well into survivorship.
If you’re a thyroid cancer patient, whether newly-diagnosed, in treatment, no evidence of disease (NED), or anywhere in between, educate and advocate for yourselves. Find doctors who take the time to understand your wants and needs as an individual human being. Never think that your cancer is “less than,” because it matters.
Carly Flumer is a young woman who was diagnosed with stage I papillary thyroid cancer at the age of 27. She recently received her Master’s degree from Boston University in Health Communication and received her Bachelor’s from George Mason University in Health Administration and Policy. While being diagnosed with the “C” word at such a young age was a surprise, as it would be to anyone, she found strength, support, and inspiration in sharing her cancer journey on social media. As a result of her health outcome, she looks to advocate for other cancer patients through education, research, and health literacy.