January is Thyroid Awareness Month. So, how much do you know about the small, butterfly-shaped gland that influences the way your heart, brain, liver, kidneys and skin function? To help spread #thyroidawareness, we asked member Barbara to tell us about living with thyroid cancer and hypothyroidism, a condition that affects over 6,000 PatientsLikeMe members.
Barbara shares how her thyroid issues have taken an emotional toll on her, as well as some advice on being your own advocate: “Fight for your right to feel normal again.”
Tell us a little about yourself. What are your hobbies and passions?
I really love photography and a new passion is gemstones. I have been taking photos since I was a kid. I love landscapes and different and interesting people. I still have several film cameras but I love the freedom of digital. I enjoy video and web design as well. I have gotten the opportunity to study gemstones and it has opened up a big new world. I am currently studying how to identify gemstones. It is like being a detective. There are so many different types. Learning their origins has been fascinating. I also love watching Kung Fu movies with my husband.
When you were diagnosed, what went through your mind?
My diagnosis was a little odd.
I went in for a regular Pap appointment and the doctor felt my glands and made an offhand remark, “Oh, you’ve had that checked,” and then continued on. I sat there stunned. I did not like this doctor so I didn’t say anything about it. When I got home I immediately called and scheduled a physical. It was during the physical that they examined the lump on my thyroid. They sent me to an endocrinologist who did a biopsy after joking that he could do it blindfolded. I did not like that doctor either. The results were abnormal but inconclusive. I was told that I needed surgery and that there was only a 20% chance it was cancer and a 20% chance that I would need thyroid medication.
I thought that I might die. I know that was an overreaction but I was scared.
I didn’t get a real diagnosis until after the surgery. It was cancer, and within two weeks I knew I needed medication even though I still have half my thyroid.
How has your life changed after having thyroid surgery?
I have become intimately familiar with exhaustion. I was told by doctors and friends and co-workers that managing my thyroid would be no big deal. Only one person gave me a real glimpse of what was to come. That was a professor that had a friend with extreme exhaustion due to his thyroid issues.
I have been tired, exhausted, angry, unreasonable, irrational and a nightmare to live with. The worst was the first year but it took many years before I started to feel close to normal again. The surgery was nothing compared to my symptoms afterwards especially since I didn’t have any to start with. They have no idea why I got cancer. There is some in my family and I have been told that there can be a link with melanoma, which does run in the family. That is something I am still learning about.
I can empathize much more with people dealing with mental illness because looking back it seems like I was crazy. I know I was not in my right mind.
I have learned to be very sensitive to my emotions. If I realize that I am not feeling “right,” then I can take precautions. If it is a really bad day I may call in sick to work because it can affect my job performance. I seem to be more prone to migraines when I am off. It can be really hard to tell if I am hypo- or hyper- from my medication. The symptoms can overlap or be very similar. I have charted all of my lab results and read a lot of different research so that I can be my own best advocate. Learning more and paying close attention along with an alarm set for my medication helps a lot. I never ever miss a dose. Depending on my blood work I may adjust my dose by half a pill a week or every other week. I have found that I am very sensitive to dosages. I miss Levothroid — it worked better than the Levothroxine I take now.
In honor of Thyroid Awareness Month, what’s one thing you think people should know about living with and recovering from thyroid cancer?
There are many different ways each person may be affected. If they push you away, please be patient. I did not realize how horrible I was until I came out of the fog. I didn’t feel that sick at the time but looking back, wow. There is help; once I switched doctors the new one listened a lot closer to what I told him and he believed me. Fight for your right to feel normal again. I had no idea that my thyroid controls so much.
In your profile, you mention your doctor: “He doesn’t seem to really understand what I am feeling because by now I should be ‘fine.’” How have you dealt with this? Do you have any advice for someone in a similar situation?
Doctors have been frustrating at times. I have tried to restate things in a different way and if that didn’t work I would request a different doctor. I have also seen a chiropractor that does muscle testing and she helped me a lot even though it seemed an odd way to see what could help. We found that a vitamin and mineral supplements helps me a lot. We went through a few other supplements to get here but I felt better with each step and she was excited to see me improve. She started with a supplement that helped my liver. I would think that everyone may be a little different. She said that I improved about twice as fast as she thought I would so we were both very happy with the results. Now I have the energy to go out and take some photos.
What has it been like connecting with other PatientsLikeMe members with your condition?
It has been very helpful to see what other people try and what they feel works for them. It has given me hope. I love the thought of all of our data helping others so they will have a faster, easier time with whatever their ailment is. If I don’t feel well I can see that someone else is doing much worse so I better be happy for what I do have.
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