Although I feel I have mentioned it a number of times, both here and on the podcast, I am finding that there are many people that do not know this fact about me; that I am a cancer survivor.
I have always felt odd making that statement. Even though I have done a number of events (7+) with Team in Training, raising money for cancer research, I never felt that I was “one of the survivors” we saw so many times at the kick off meetings. Because of the type of cancer I had, thyroid, it felt like I was falsely placing myself in the ranks of people that fought through this awful disease much harder than I had to. I liken it to how I felt when I first started doing triathlons. Even though I have finished many of them, from Sprints to Half Ironman’s, because I was still a solid back of the pack participant it never felt right to call myself a triathlete.
But I am one.
And in that same vein, I am also a cancer survivor.
Thyroid cancer occurs when abnormal cells begin to grow in your thyroid gland (a butterfly shaped gland located in the front of your neck). Its job is to make hormones that regulate the way your body uses energy and that help your body work normally. Thyroid cancer is also a rare and uncommon type of cancer, so it makes perfect sense that I would get it, but most people do very well because it is usually found early and responds well to treatment. After it is treated, thyroid cancer may come back, sometimes many years after treatment. Unless, like me, you have the entire gland removed.
But what causes thyroid cancer in the first place, since it is so rare?
Most experts cannot agree on what causes thyroid cancer. Changes in DNA, like most cancers, probably plays a role. People who have been exposed to a lot of radiation have a greater chance of getting thyroid cancer. I, for example, served aboard numerous Navy warships during my ten years serving, which also had radioactive items onboard. Since I had no family history of this cancer, it seems to reason that this may have been the catalyst, just don’t try to tell the military that. Past radiation treatment of your head, neck, or chest can put you at risk of getting thyroid cancer.
Thyroid cancer can cause several symptoms:
- You may get a lump or swelling in your neck. This is the most common symptom. This showed up the first time on my medical discharge paperwork in 1991. Right there in black & white. “Small Goiter in the neck”. Nothing was done.
- You may have pain in your neck and sometimes in your ears. Not really for me.
- You may have trouble swallowing. I did then and I still do now. Feels numb.
- You may have trouble breathing or have constant wheezing. Absolutely. I always feel like I am gasping and forcing air into me. Try racing a triathlon, especially a swim, with THAT issue.
- Your voice may be hoarse. I lost a vocal nerve when they removed the gland. There went my angelic singing voice.
- You may have a frequent cough that is not related to a cold. I always have a slight cough.
Thyroid cancer is treated with surgery and often with radioactive iodine, which was true in my case. What treatment you need depends on your age, the type of thyroid cancer you have, and the stage of your disease. I had to go back from scans every few months to see if there were floating pieces in my body, which was then blasted. After five years I was declared cancer free, and after 2005 I was no longer required to be checked again.
But the damage has been done.
Thyroid cancer can create havoc in your system. Once the gland is gone you are permanently hypothyroid. You get tired, have little energy, your muscles, especially the large one like legs, always feel fatigued. You have trouble sleeping. You put on weight. It can affect your testosterone level (which it did), and result in other autoimmune diseases taking up residence (hello psoriatic arthritis).
So, the bottom line is this – I am alive. Yes, I have issues I have to deal with and will continue to deal with the rest of my life, but they are manageable. There are treatments, if not cures, and it can be handled when you set your mind to handle it.