In the spring of 2014, allergies hit me hard—or so I thought. I was constantly stuffy, plagued by ear pain and pressure, a raspy voice, and an itchy cough. I was a busy working, single mom, so I took my usual over-the-counter allergy medication and waited for my symptoms to pass.
A month later, I still felt awful and relieved my yearly internist checkup was coming up. My blood pressure and weight were in the "normal" range—and I had no problems to report aside from the allergies. But, things took a turn when my doctor felt around my neck and under my jaw—she identified a grape-sized lump with her fingers.
An ultrasound soon revealed I had a four-centimeter tumor covering my thyroid gland's right lobe, which turned out to be a follicular variant of papillary carcinoma (cancer). I needed surgery to remove the entire gland. A few months after that, I swallowed a radioactive iodine pill to soak up the remaining cancer cells.
Do a self neck-check at home. It’s easy. Feel the Adam's apple in your neck; the bulky cartilage that moves up and down when you swallow. Slide your fingers down until you feel the next prominent cartilage. Then place your fingers on either side of that prominence (just above the notch at the base of the neck) and swallow. If you have a problem, you should be able to feel lumps.
Dealing With "Good" Cancer
People told me thyroid cancer was a "good cancer" because I wouldn't die if it was treated early. Thyroid cancer has a survival rate of nearly 97% after five years, and I’m seven years into remission. However, I lost a vital gland and gained a lifetime of medication, invasive tests, and doctor appointments, so I didn’t quite see it that way.
I also didn’t realize how important my thyroid was until it was gone. The butterfly-shaped gland is like your body’s battery; the hormones it stores and produces affect every organ's function in your body. Your thyroid regulates your metabolism and influences everything, including your weight, energy levels, body temperature, and mood.
Before having my thyroid removed, I was clear-headed, energetic, happy, and slept well. I loved chasing my son around the park, taking our golden retriever hiking, working out in my apartment building’s gym center, and dating. I ate a healthy diet but didn’t worry about it all that much.
Accepting Medication As A Part of My New Normal
With my thyroid gone, my doctor put me on a very high dose of Synthroid—synthetic thyroxine (T4)—which is the main hormone produced by the thyroid gland, acting to increase metabolic rate, thus regulating growth and development. The dose was off-the-charts high to suppress my thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) so cancer cells couldn’t grow back.
The second drug, Liothyronine (T3), is also a man-made form of thyroid hormone. Low thyroid hormone levels will occur when the gland is removed by surgery. Every morning, two hours before having any coffee or food, I take the tiny peach-colored pill and the equally tiny white pill.
Getting the doses correct was like a science experiment. When the dose was too high, I felt hot and red-faced, had night sweats, accelerated anxiety, and was fatigued. Even though my diet did not change, I started to gain weight, and my fatigue made it difficult to exercise regularly. Some days, I just wanted to hide under my covers.
After six months, my doctor lowered my Synthroid dose because my blood-work indicated I was in the "normal" range for someone without a thyroid. But I didn’t feel normal at all. Now I was cold, constantly covered in goosebumps, forgetful, and depressed. My hair was falling out, my legs retained water and looked puffy, and my skin had become ruddy and red. I easily lost track of what I was doing and felt tired after a full night of sleep. I felt like I was 85, not someone in their 30s.
Taking Action and Advocating for My Health
Frustrated and angry, I put my background in health journalism to use and found the best doctor I could. I got an appointment at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in NYC with an endocrinologist named Dr. Laura Boucai, who specializes in thyroid cancer maintenance and the quality of life after thyroid cancer. For the first time, a doctor sympathized with me, and I spent much of that first appointment crying. I was used to being silenced, reminded I didn’t have a deadly type of cancer, and told to deal with my "new normal."
After an ultrasound and blood-work, Dr. Boucai determined my thyroid levels were way too high, and my meds needed to be adjusted. She also told me my lifestyle was just as important as my prescriptions and I’d have to stick to a few new rules—like drinking a lot of water, exercising every single day, and being careful with carbs.
To make sure you're drinking enough water, purchase a motivational water bottle. They are cheesy but trust me—they work.
Taking Charge of My Life By Making Simple Tweaks
I committed to exercising at a challenging pace for an hour every single day. To accomplish this, I took up power walking with my dog. It was cathartic, and I looked forward to my time outside in the fresh air. I also strength-trained at home and joined a Barre class.
I stopped putting sugar in my coffee, switched to almond milk, saved pasta for Sundays, started wrapping sandwiches in lettuce, and stuck to nuts and raw fruits and veggies for snacks instead of my usual salty pretzels, pita chips, and cheese.
Meal planning helped, too. Every Sunday night, I cooked a huge batch of grilled lemon and balsamic chicken and quinoa salad with peppers, kale, and a sprinkle of feta. I also stocked my fridge with Greek yogurt, tuna packets, cold bean salad, and a pitcher of lemon and celery water. The crisper was packed with produce, and big salads became my go-to lunch and dinner—and even breakfast. Not having to think about what I was going to eat made it easier to stay on track with my busy schedule.
Throughout the next four months, I gained back my confidence. I’ll always have to go for blood-work to check my hormone levels. Once a year, I get a head and neck ultrasound. This is my new life, and accepting it shifted the way I think about life without a thyroid. I can control certain aspects of this journey, but not every aspect—and that’s OK.
The scar on my neck is barely visible anymore, but I like it and never aim to mask it with a scarf, jewelry, or collar. It’s a battle scar that reminds me of how strong I am.