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A thyroid cancer story

From Rebecca Tinney

In the summer of 2005 my GP referred me to my local oral surgery clinic because I had a swollen parotid (salivary) gland. The consultant, Mr.Irvine, arranged for me to have an ultrasound scan of all my salivary glands and neck area. So off I went for my scan on September 1st where it was revealed that my salivary glands were normal but I apparently had a nodule in my thyroid gland. The radiologist did a needle biopsy there and then to remove some cells from the lump in the hope of getting more information about it. I was told not to worry as 95%, or thereabouts, of thyroid nodules are benign.

When I saw Mr. Irvine for my follow-up appointment two weeks later he told me the biopsy results were inconclusive and that although the lump was almost certainly benign, his recommendation would be to remove the half of my thyroid gland which contained it. It was entirely my choice whether I had surgery or not but I agreed to have the operation as I wanted to be reassured once and for all that all was ok.

I went into hospital on October 8th 2005 and had the operation the following day. When I was admitted I had to have a blood test, an ECG and a fibre-optic camera put down my throat (via my nose)to check my vocal chords.

The operation is quite lengthy (mine took 3 hours). My wound was comparatively small - about 3-4 inches and was stitched with a running stitch under the skin. I had one drain in place, coming out of the top part of my chest and attached to a vacuum bottle. I felt quite sore on the operation day and on the first night but had good pain killers so managed to eat and drink quite quickly. I had a drip in place overnight which was taken out the following day. I stayed in hospital for 2 days after the surgery when the wound had stopped draining. I had blood tests for thyroid function before I went home.

When I had my stitch removed about 10 days later I was told that there was no written report yet from the lab but there was a verbal report that the lump had been some form of cancer (I cannot remember the exact name) but that it had been removed entirely at the operation. I was told that the type of tumour it was, behaved like a benign tumour even though it was theoretically a cancer. All in all I was made to feel that everything was fine and that I was really lucky for things to have turned out this way.

Two weeks later I saw my consultant and the complete report was back. I was told that I had follicular variant papillary thyroid cancer. This is a tumour which is a mixture of the 2 commonest types of thyroid cancer. There was one tumour which was 14mm wide and a second tiny one starting to grow nearby. The consultant said that because the tumour was bigger than 10mm I needed to have further treatment. This consisted of firstly removing what remained of my thyroid gland to be followed by radioactive iodine treatment at the oncology hospital.

Four weeks after my first op I underwent the same procedure again! This time 6 lymph nodes were also removed from my neck. The histology report after that second surgery was fine - no cancer in any of the tissue removed.

I met the oncologist just before Christmas and she explained that I would need 1-3 treatments with radioiodine. The treatment consists of swallowing a capsule of iodine laced with a good dose of a radioactive substance. The idea is that thyroid tissue readily absorbs iodine so any tissue remaining in the neck after surgery soaks up the iodine and the radioactivity then kills it off. The treatment leaves you radioactive so you have to be isolated in hospital until the level of radioactivity in your body drops to a safe limit. I was discharged on the third day. I had a full body scan immediately after my treatment which showed a very small amount of remaining tissue in my neck. Because the radioactivity continues to work for a while after discharge from hospital, the oncologist decided to do another scan after 6 months. I was really lucky in that my scan was completely clear so I only needed the one dose of treatment.

The surgery took a while to get over especially having the 2 ops so close together. I felt quite nauseated after the radioiodine treatment and it lasted about a week. I have to take thyroid hormone replacement tablets for the rest of my life. As well as controlling my metabolism the tablets prevent any particles of thyroid tissue that may be still in my body from functioning.

I had 3 monthly check ups until May this year when I was deemed to be doing so well that I need only be seen on a 6 monthly basis.

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Updated: 28 September 2009