2014 was a rough year for me, to say the least. There’s no doubt it really tested me. It all happened so fast, which is usually what they say about Cancer, and I guess in a way I’m extremely lucky; I got the “good kind”, if there really is such a thing.
It all started in about October of 2013. I was working as an Endodontic Specialist Dental Nurse, living on the Sunshine Coast, being a total gym fanatic with my best friend Suzie and hiking on the weekends. In fact, it was probably the healthiest time of my life, I was doing all the right things. I remember being at boxing one day and mentioning to Suzie about the choking feeling I was having while I worked, the feeling of needing to look up to the roof and gasp for air. At the time, I was fighting with my boyfriend a lot who was living in Brisbane, and was constantly stressed about our circumstances, so I just put it down to having some sort of anxiety attack while I worked. It seemed logical, as Brad and I were going to Thailand, so with the stress and fear of flying, anxiety was a perfect explanation.
On returning home mid November after two weeks in Thailand and Malaysia, I drove up to Cooroy to visit my mum and stepdad, and fill them in on our trip. Mum is primarily a Bowen and Health therapist, with some beauty therapy and massage, and as I’m sure any daughter would do, I’m always hounding her to work her magic on my constantly tight neck and shoulders. It was while she was doing her thing around my neck that she noticed a lump on the right-hand side. “It’s most likely a lymph node, but keep an eye on it” …I forgot about it. For a few weeks at least..
It was Christmas eve when I remembered the lump in my neck. I quickly went to feel if it had disappeared, but to much disappointment, it hadn’t. Let me just add two things briefly in here; that I am a total hypochondriac, and I have always feared getting throat cancer – I never wanted to end up losing my voice. Funny that.
As I was living in Coolum, and my usual GP (who’d I had recently lost a little confidence in) was in Cooroy, I called the Medical Center that Suzie had recommended. Suzie raved about her Doctor, so I thought this may be a good opportunity to make the switch. I wasn’t able to get in with him, so I just asked to be slotted in with anyone that had availability that day as I didn’t want to leave it over the Christmas break. I believe this turned out to be the best decision of my life, because finding a thorough GP is make or break, literally. My doctor was exactly that – thorough. I mentioned my mum’s thoughts on it being an inflamed lymph node or gland, and he agreed. We thought it could be connected to some sinus trouble. He gave me antibiotics, a nasal spray and wanted to review me after the holiday period, giving the antibiotics enough time to kick in.
When I returned two weeks later, the lump was still there. Dr. decided to send me for an ultrasound, and I think I went in for it directly after my appointment. Upon having the ultrasound they learned the 12mm lump, which they referred to as a “nodule” or “node” was situated on my Thyroid. Thyroid nodules are very common, about fifty percent of the population have them, most (95%) lay dormant and never cause issues, a small amount (5%) can be potentially dangerous (malignant). The difference in these nodules are whether they are a “hot” nodule or a “cold nodule” which is where my next scan came in.
Nuclear imaging; the process of injecting a small amount of radioactive iodine and scanning to see whether the thyroid absorbs it, which would be shown on the image. A hot nodule would absorb the iodine completely and means that it is not disrupting the function of the thyroid. A cold nodule, which was what mine turned out to be, would show up as a white mass or blur in the image as they do not absorb the dye like the rest of a the gland would. Cold nodules have a slightly higher chance of being malignant. At this point all we knew was that there was a 12mm mass on my thyroid that was not functioning along with the rest of the gland. Eighty-five percent of these cold nodules turn out to be benign, so my next step was to have a fine needle aspiration biopsy. Yes, it is exactly how it sounds, and no it’s not as painful as you would imagine.
The results that came back two days later were not what I had hoped for. It was 9pm on a Wednesday night when I got the call from my doctor;“the results have come back suspicious for malignancy, the cells are abnormal. You will need to have it out.” Finding out this news was devastating and scary, all the while I had been stuck in my hypochondriac head; Googling anything I could find about my situation. Needless to say I was feeling fairly vulnerable when my boyfriend left the next day to fly down to Melbourne for an engagement party, booze the entire weekend away and barely respond to my messages, but that’s another story.. *eye roll* I received my referral from my GP to see a surgeon under the public system, the wait list would be about six weeks as my situation wasn’t classed as an emergency. Let me say this; always, always trust your gut instinct when in this position. Both of my parents decided to accompany me to meet with the surgeon (keep in mind, this is their first face to face meeting since their split when I was fifteen) but I was determined to have this consultation on my own. The one thing I took from this ten minute consultation, which involved the surgeon describing to me how big and bad my scar will be and that my patients were “going to stare at it” was that there was no way in hell I was letting this man slice me open.
After the very stressful ordeal of this consultation that ended in me arguing with my parents and a lot of confusion, I went home and did a little bit of research of my own. What and whom I found was Dr. Ian Bennett; top of the list on the Austral-Asian Board of Endocrine Specialist Surgeons. I called his office and his receptionist explained the entire procedure, that it would be done in a public hospital cutting the cost of the surgery in half, and that he would work alongside a pathologist during the surgery to enable them to diagnose whether it was a malignant or benign tumor while I was still under General Anesthetic. I booked the next available consultation as well as my surgery date; March 12th. When I went back to see my doctor to get a new referral for Dr. Bennett written up, I remember his words that really stuck with me were;“Please make sure you have this done soon, don’t leave it, I have a strong feeling this is cancer, there’s about an eighty percent chance that it is.”
I went to see Dr. Bennett for my consult one week prior to my surgery date. There were no if’s or but’s about surgery, it was a definite. He explained absolutely every detail of the surgery, the post op, complications and success rate. During the surgery they would remove the half of my Thyroid containing the lump and while I was still under, the pathologist would test to see what it was. If it was benign, they would stitch me up and let me go home with half a thyroid gland (many people can still function normally with half a gland), and it probably wouldn’t change me too much. If the lump happened to be Cancer, they would perform a total thyroidectomy (removing the remainder of the gland) as well as some surrounding tissue to ensure the cancer had not spread. Having a pathologist on hand meant that the entire procedure could be done in one go. Had I have gone with the surgeon in the public system, I would have needed to have my initial surgery to remove the lump, and then further surgery once the tests came back positive for malignancy. Going through that twice in the space of a few weeks? No thank you. There was also the possibility of needing radiation therapy if the lump was cancerous, but that would be decided upon after surgery was complete. So, on the 12th of March my family and my boyfriend escorted me over to the Princess Alexandra hospital. I have never been so scared in my life. I'd had surgery once before, but the unknown was what was making this so scary. Did I have cancer? Will I need radiation therapy? Will my life be completely different when, or if I wake up? Leaving my family behind in the waiting room and laying in that cold hospital bed before my surgery for hours was the most alone and vulnerable I’d ever felt, I was shaking with nerves. My surgeon was running late; I was one of the last to go in and the wait seemed to drag on forever. I remember laying in my hospital bed and smiling at the older man across from me as the nurses came over and said “It’s time!” and then I was wheeled over to the theater. I was soon joined by the Anesthetist and his nurse, who finally placed my drip and injected something that started to make me feel like I'd had a few wines. It was then, that all my worries withered away. I was wheeled into theater from the waiting bay, and the last things I remember were the warm bright lights, and rolling onto the operating table... then I woke up.
I remember waking up and feeling great, I was sucking on ice cubes and having the cheeriest of conversations with the surgical nurses. I can’t remember what we spoke about, but I remember they were having a good laugh, probably at me, not with me like I thought. My throat didn’t hurt too much at this point, however I was so high on pain meds that by the time I was wheeled over to my ward I was out like a light again.
I woke up, and it felt late, but all I wanted was to see my family. I begged the nurse -“Please, can you just call my family in?” I woke up again surrounded by my family. I remember being distracted by the fact my stepdad and dad were both standing there. Together. I don’t think they’d ever spoken, let alone met before. To be honest I don’t even know if dad knew about him. Weird. “Do they know what it was?” I said to my mum. “It was Cancer” she replied. It sucked. Having two drains coming out of the wound in my throat, and having to carry them and my drip around every time I dragged my sorry ass out of bed to go to the bathroom. I spent two nights in the hospital, and I would have gone mad if it hadn’t of been for my family and Suzie. My doctor came through and explained everything to me, that it was Cancer; Papillary Carcinoma. The gland was totally removed along with one parathyroid gland and some surrounding lymph nodes to check if it had spread. My case would be assessed for potential radiation therapy, and for the rest of my life I would need to take Thyroxine medication, a replacement synthetic thyroid hormone since I could no longer produce my own. On the third day I was able to go home, one week later I had my post op and review with Dr. Bennett. It came back that the surrounding tissues that were taken were clear of any cancerous cells, and that the cancer itself was only 9mm with clean edges, which meant I would not need to have radiation therapy. Due to there being only one radiation clinic in Queensland, they usually only treat people for that have cancer tumours over the size of 4cm (for thyroid) so I was very lucky, we had caught it early. Dr. Bennett explained what would happen now; a higher dosage of Thyroxine would be needed to ensure no cells grow back. Thyroid cells cannot grow back, so if there were to be any regrowth, it would most likely be Cancer. I’d need a blood test every 6 months to check and balance my T3 and T4 levels, and then just standard monitoring.
After about a week and a half, Brad broke up with me. After two weeks, I returned to work. My scar healed extremely well, it’s a heck of a lot tinier than all those photos I found on my Google searches of “thyroidectomy scar”. I was warned by a few people to prepare myself for an emotional rollercoaster, especially while adjusting to the Thyroxine. I don’t know if it was the breakup, or the cancer, or both, but I can surely attest to that statement. The first six months, I was a wreck. It was like a constant battle and the more depressed I became, the more bad things I felt were happening to me. This is the reason why I threw myself into volunteer projects, and hiking.
There are a few things I can say from my experience: Remember to “Check your neck” and thoroughly check your entire body.. Don’t wait, if you think there is something going on with your body, don’t leave it and hope for the best. Go to the doctors. That's what they're there for. Always trust your instinct, if you’re not comfortable with that doctor – choose a new one.
If you think you’re right about something, chances are, you are. I realize people were trying to keep me calm and be positive about my situation when I first found out about my potential diagnosis, but I really knew deep down something wasn’t right. I initially wrote this blog in 2015 and am rewriting it again now, 5 years later in 2020 - six years after my cancer diagnosis and treatment. I still see Dr Bennett annually, however sometimes I need to see him more often if my T3 and T4 levels aren't balanced, and we adjust my Thyroxine dosage accordingly. I will never be as strong or have the energy levels of someone who has their own full functioning thyroid, but it's a small price to pay to be cancer free. Here's to the future!