“PEN builds community and empowers you to be your own advocate.” – Vanessa Steil, thyroid cancer survivor and patient advocate.
When Vanessa Steil recounts how she was first diagnosed with thyroid cancer, you can tell it is a story she has told many times. The dates, the terminology, and which doctor told her what and when are all precisely chronicled in her memory. Yet it took her reflecting on her story as a survivor to process just how crucial all of the details were. Now, she’s passionate and committed to helping others, and she has dedicated much of her time—and career— over the past eight years to doing just that.
It all started in March 2013 during a routine visit to the gynecologist. The doctor, who performed a neck check as part of the exam, felt a lump on the right side of Vanessa’s thyroid. “I was taken off guard by the whole thing,” she says. She tried to convince herself that the lump was nothing serious, but she followed the doctor’s advice for further testing, and a month later was diagnosed with papillary thyroid carcinoma: thyroid cancer. She was 26 years old. “My whole world changed with just three words. In an instant, I went from feeling like a normal person to having to absorb all this new medical jargon,” she says.
It was a difficult time for Vanessa. She was young, she didn’t know anyone else her age who had cancer, and she didn’t know anyone with thyroid cancer. While she had support from friends and family, at the end of the day she felt very much alone. As the weeks passed by and her mind raced on, she began to second-guess her diagnosis, question whether she should have surgery, and considered having another biopsy. “I had to work through the emotional aspects of my diagnosis, including coming to grips with the fact that I had thyroid cancer and the fear I felt about the outcome,” she explains. “You have to be in a positive place when you are going to have surgery.” Fortunately, her cancer was not overly aggressive, and she was able to delay the surgery until she felt more prepared.
By June 2013, she was ready for surgery and had a total thyroidectomy that included the removal of six lymph nodes, one of which was positive for cancer. The surgery was successful, and so far, she hasn’t required any radiation therapy, a common follow-up treatment post thyroid cancer. While in 2017 her antithyroglobulin levels, a marker that can be used to monitor a possible cancer recurrence in those with an autoimmune condition, went up and remained that way, she continues to be monitored. Her bloodwork and scans are done twice a year, and once a year she has a neck ultrasound; each time she experiences what survivors call “scanxiety” until she gets an all clear from the results.
When Vanessa was diagnosed, her endocrinologist gave her a key piece of advice that she didn’t completely understand at the time, but it stuck with her, and the meaning soon became clear. He told her, “Don’t turn this diagnosis into a research project.” As someone who is naturally curious and was eager to learn all she could about her disease, as soon as she was diagnosed, Vanessa took to “Dr. Google” looking for information and answers, but she wasn’t always finding helpful information. “While online, I was landing on horror stories,” she says, adding that while it is important to be knowledgeable about your disease, it is imperative to get accurate information and to be careful about choosing which sites or social media outlets to use as resources. “The Internet can be a scary rabbit hole, and it can cause unnecessary worry,” she says. “Finding a reputable site, like Patient Empowerment Network (PEN), that’s done a lot of the legwork for you and has comprehensive resources available is invaluable,” she says. Vanessa especially appreciates that PEN helps prepare patients for doctor visits by providing a list of questions to ask and offers relevant insight to caregivers, and survivors. “I was impressed with the PEN content, because it helps the patient from diagnosis to recovery,” she says. She also recommends sites that offer a sense of community where you can interact with other patients who have had similar experiences. “PEN builds community and empowers you to be your own advocate,” she says. “You have to know your body and speak up for yourself. That’s where the community aspect comes in. As a survivor, I try to provide that sense of community for others.”
After her surgery, Vanessa found a creative outlet that allows her to provide support for others and helped her through her own recovery. She created a lifestyle and wellness blog, Living in Steil (pronounced style), where she shares her personal journey and favorite resources as well as beauty, food, fitness, and health and wellness information. She says she was inspired to start the blog in February 2014, while recovering from surgery and trying to put the pieces of her life back together. “You don’t often process the emotional aspects of cancer until later,” she says. “It’s been cathartic to blog about my experience and have the site resonate with so many other patients and survivors.”
Her work as a blogger has led to many more opportunities to share her story including being asked to participate in a book, Tough: Women who Survived Cancer by Marquina Iliev-Piselli and collaborations with other advocacy groups in the healthcare space. In addition to her blog, Vanessa is a health coach and Board Certified Patient Advocate who also works for a pancreatic cancer foundation where she manages public relations and social media. She credits her diagnosis with helping her find her career niche and a meaningful role that allows her to make a difference in the lives of patients every day.
As far as her cancer is concerned, technically she is in remission, but says she is vigilant about staying on top of her health. “I have never taken my survivor status for granted,” she says. She continues to be her own advocate and has found that sometimes means she needs to find new doctors. If they are not listening to her or are not open to communication, she knows it’s time to move on. “It’s important to find a doctor who takes your concerns to heart,” she says.
Through Vanessa’s own experience with cancer, she’s learned a lot about advocating for herself and others. Vanessa has experienced firsthand what works and what doesn’t, and she is grateful to be able to share her knowledge. “If I can bridge the gap for people with a cancer diagnosis and make it easier for them to get the resources they need, then that is rewarding for me,” she says. “I had a difficult diagnosis, but I learned from my challenges and now I can share that knowledge with others. I can’t think of a better way to pay it forward than that.”
Read more about Vanessa and follow along with her journey at www.livinginsteil.com or on social media at @livinginsteil.
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