“I even had to alert my neighbors in my apartment building to try and keep away from our walls that met because the radioactive poison was that strong.”
That was the reality, my sister, Nicole McLane, faced in January 2018. Nicole is a mother of 2 boys, a bonus mom to 3, and along with many other women – a thyroid cancer survivor.
Exactly four years ago, Nicole was going through radiation to rid her body of any leftover thyroid tissue. Just months before, in September 2017, she had undergone surgery to have her thyroid removed and was diagnosed with papillary carcinoma.
According to the Office on Women’s Health, about three times as many women get thyroid cancer as men. The number of women with thyroid cancer is also going up. By 2020, the number of women with thyroid cancer was expected to double, from 34,000 to more than 70,000.
January is Thyroid Awareness Month. To help raise awareness, Nicole has graciously and bravely decided to share her story as a thyroid cancer survivor.
During our discussion together, when Nicole was asked to go back to the beginning and recount what led her to the original diagnosis, she described changes that she began to notice in her mental and physical health. “It began with changes in my hair and skin, which I never related to anything other than maybe a change in the weather or a hormonal change. Then, I started noticing unexplained weight gain along with major anxiety and depression.”
The American Thyroid Association states that approximately 20 million Americans have some form of thyroid cancer. It is important to discuss because 60% of those with a thyroid disease are unaware of their condition.
After Nicole met with her doctors and completed tests and other evaluations, everything came back normal, even thyroid tests.
“It wasn’t until a couple of months later that I choked on a bite of pizza and, doing so, moved my tumor that was located on the right side of my thyroid.”
The choking incident caused Nicole to feel some tightness in her throat, and at that point, her doctor ordered an ultrasound on her thyroid, which led him to locate the tumor. An ENT, to who she was referred to, believed that surgery was necessary due to the size of the tumor. After the surgery was completed in September 2017, the doctors were able to then officially diagnose her with papillary carcinoma.
Two short months later, in November 2017, our brother would be getting married. The doctors allowed her to push back her radiation treatments so that she could attend the wedding. The treatment included a strict quarantine process for post-radiation.
In January 2018, radiation began. “The radiation process was the most exhausting. For two weeks leading up to the treatment, I had to be on a low iodine diet because thyroid tissue feeds on iodine. Being on a low iodine diet would prevent the tissue from growing.”
“The treatment itself was given to me in pill form. The first day, I went in and took a small dose and the second day was a much larger dose. The radiation was full of iodine; this would cause any thyroid tissue to swell and help the radiation attack it.”
After Nicole’s second dose of radiation, she was told she had to quarantine for seven days. “I was told that I was “radioactive.”
Back at her apartment, she had very strict rules given to her by her doctors. She could only sit and sleep on one piece of furniture, which had to be completely covered.
“I could only use dishes that could be thrown away. I even had to flush the toilet twice after each use to ensure all of the radioactive material went down the drain. I even had to alert my neighbors in my apartment building to try and keep away from our walls that met because the radioactive poison was that strong.”
Fast forward to now four years later post original diagnosis, surgery, and radiation, Nicole explains how her life has been very challenging. She has suffered from several physical changes: dry hair and skin, unexplained weight gain, achy joints, and little to no energy most days. Anxiety and depression are also still a challenge.
“I have spent a lot of time in the last four years in doctors’ offices. Every six months, I have blood drawn, ultrasounds, and I sit down with my endocrinologist to discuss thyroid levels. My levels have to be constantly managed. I also have a yearly PET scan to make sure there is no cancer growth anywhere else.”
When I asked Nicole if she would be willing to share her story, she gladly agreed and expressed that her goal was to remind those who are going through things that they are not alone. “It is okay to feel weak and to need those around you. You are never alone. Share your story.”
“It is so important to get your thyroid checked. Blood tests may not show a nodule or a tumor. If you feel there is something going on, trust yourself. Trust your body. Be your own advocate and get answers! I am a thyroid cancer survivor.”
For more information on the American Thyroid Association, please click here.