Spotlight on Women's Health

Woman with her hand at her neck

An Interview About Thyroid Cancer

January 16, 2018

Your thyroid is a small gland at the base of your neck. It makes a hormone that helps control your body's metabolism, including how fast you burn calories and how fast your heart beats. About three times as many women get thyroid cancer as men. One woman shares her story about finding out she had papillary thyroid cancer, the most common of type, when she was only 19. Read her story — from her diagnosis to treatment to being cancer-free.

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Were you experiencing any symptoms?

No, I had not experienced any symptoms prior to my diagnosis.

How was it discovered?

The lump (tumor) on my thyroid was discovered by my very thorough nurse practitioner. Similar to the way a gynecologist typically checks your breasts for lumps, this nurse practitioner also routinely checked for lumps throughout my neck area. I am so glad she did! The lump was not large, but she still referred me to another doctor to have it checked out — just in case.

Do you remember how you felt when you got your diagnosis?

I was confused and shocked! Even though I had gone through several tests before the diagnosis, there was still a part of me that thought it wouldn’t be cancer. It didn’t make sense to me. I was young and healthy, and I had no symptoms. But sometimes that’s how thyroid cancer works.

What was your treatment like?

Treatment for the cancer involved a complete removal of my thyroid, along with the removal of several of my parathyroid glands and lymph nodes where the cancer had spread. After the surgery, I spent many months preparing for radioactive iodine treatment by eating a specialized diet that limited my iodine intake. (It’s in a lot of processed foods.) I had to do this so that my radioactive iodine treatment would be as effective as possible. I was fortunate to have excellent doctors who supported my wish to stay in school during this time, so I was able to work out a treatment plan with them that allowed me to continue my studies at my university and return home on a regular basis for checkups.

During my summer break, I checked into the hospital for several days for radioactive iodine treatment (radiation). This involved taking pills with radioactive iodine and then staying isolated in a hospital room until I had removed most of the radiation from my system. Any remaining thyroid cancer cells would have immediately taken up the radioactive iodine, effectively destroying those cells. I had to drink lots of water and take showers every couple of hours to move the remaining radioactive iodine out of my system as quickly as possible.

Do you need routine care now or special medications?

Since I no longer have a thyroid, I have to take thyroid medication daily in order to provide my body with the hormones it needs to survive. I also see an endocrinologist at least once a year to check my thyroid hormone levels and make adjustments to my medication as needed.

How many years have you been cancer-free, and how does it feel?

I have been officially cancer-free for five years now, and it feels great!

How has this experience, especially at such a young age, altered your life?

Having been diagnosed with thyroid cancer at a young age has made me extremely grateful for the excellent medical care I have access to. I’m also more diligent about seeing doctors.

What would you say to other women who may have recently learned they have thyroid cancer?

Find a highly rated medical team that you trust, do your own research so that you understand your diagnosis and treatment options, and surround yourself with supportive friends and family.

The statements and opinions in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office on Women's Health.