September is thyroid cancer awareness month. Although thyroid cancer accounts for only about 1.5% of new cancer diagnoses in the US, rates of thyroid cancer have been steadily rising over the last three decades, making it the most rapidly increasing cancer in the US.
Thyroid cancer is often diagnosed at younger ages than other adult cancers. Women are also three times more likely to develop thyroid cancer than men. Fortunately, most thyroid cancers are easily treatable, especially if caught early.
Heather, a patient of The Oregon Clinic endocrine surgeon Dr. Shaghayegh Aliabadi, was diagnosed with thyroid cancer earlier this year and underwent surgery. She shares her story with us below to help spread awareness and encouragement to others facing the same diagnosis.
In early 2022, after receiving blood tests that showed unusually elevated calcium levels, Heather, 53, was diagnosed with hyperparathyroidism. Her primary care provider referred her to Dr. Aliabadi at The Oregon Clinic Center for Advanced Surgery. As part of the workup for parathyroid surgery, Dr. Aliabadi ordered imaging which detected a growth in Heather's thyroid gland. Biopsy results showed that the thyroid growth was malignant.
“I read the results of this test while at the airport with my 18-year-old son,” Heather says. “I think I stopped breathing for a moment and the thought, “I have cancer” was going through my brain. But, I knew that this was a very common cancer, it was slow growing, and I had a doctor who was good at what she did.”
Heather’s son and husband were immediately supportive, as well as their church community who helped with yard maintenance and brought her family meals during her recovery. “The more I told people, the more I heard of a friend, mom, sister, brother, who had also been diagnosed and they were doing just great. That gave me great hope and really lifted me.”
Preparing for Surgery
Heather met with Dr. Aliabadi again to assess her next steps, and she underwent surgery to remove the overactive parathyroid, her thyroid cancer, and malignant lymph nodes just a few weeks later, in April 2022. “I was so anxious to get the “bad stuff” out of me!” Heather says. “There were many symptoms of the hyper parathyroid that were affecting me. I was excited to feel better although I knew, and worked hard at keeping a realistic perspective, that it was going to take months to recover and feel better than I did before the surgery.”
Throughout this scary and uncertain time, Heather felt reassured by Dr. Aliabadi’s commitment and compassion. “I really appreciated the way she communicated, both vocally and nonverbally. Dr. Aliabadi was confident in what the next steps were. When you’re feeling so uncertain and scared, to have someone like her have a plan in place and guide you through that plan is amazing.”
Following surgery, Heather was put on medication to replace her thyroid function, a once-a-day pill taken first thing in the morning. She also received radioiodine treatment. She spent the next few months focusing on her recovery. Heather was still experiencing a sore throat and some pain when using her neck muscles. “I slept on our reclining sofa for two full weeks to keep my neck elevated, to provide support and in a good position for healing. And I slept a lot!” Today, four-and-a-half-months post-surgery, Heather says she’s feeling like her energy is back and is careful not to push herself too hard.
Heather felt reassured by her experience with Dr. Aliabadi and The Oregon Clinic. “When I had questions or concerns, I got answers quickly. I was grateful for the kindness of the staff,” she says. “Seeing Dr. Aliabadi at my follow-up appointment was great, and it was nice to know I was doing well in my recovery. I didn’t feel rushed at all and felt I was meeting with a friend. I’m so grateful I had Dr. Aliabadi to walk this path with me.”
Advocating for Your Health
For other patients seeking treatment for thyroid cancer, Heather’s advice is to not be afraid to ask questions, more than once if you need to. “It’s hard to process everything the first time it’s said. It’s okay to need clarification, so don’t be afraid to call and ask,” she says. “Make sure you understand instructions and follow them. There is an element that some effectiveness or your treatment is up to you. Even with an amazing doctor and clinic, you need to do your part. Lastly, be patient with yourself and make sure you have the support to do so, whether with friends or family. Talk with others that have gone through this if you can.”
The Oregon Clinic has many expert physicians trained in treating thyroid cancer in our Endocrine Surgery and Ear, Nose, & Throat specialties. Click here to learn more about our endocrine care.