Sunday, November 11, 2012

My Cancer's Better Than Your Cancer

Thyroid cancer has been in the news lately, since the celebrity Brooke Burke-Charvet was diagnosed with it. I didn't know who she was, but apparently she's the co-host of Dancing With the Stars. (I'm a So You Think You Can Dance girl, myself.) It's nice that thyroid cancer is getting some attention, because it's largely ignored by foundations and fundraisers. It doesn't have a month devoted to it, or even a ribbon. And yet it's one of the few cancers that is actually on the rise in the U.S., particularly in women.

I should probably stop here and reveal that I myself am a thyroid cancer survivor. I had to fight it pretty aggressively for four years in high school. Thankfully, I've been in remission for a long time, but there are certain things I'm never going to recover from. I have to take thyroid hormone supplements for the rest of my life, and that's a constant frustration. Over the years, I've had many and varied medical issues, ranging from severe stomach pain to hair loss, that resulted from an imbalance of thyroid hormone. I have frequent blood tests and dosage changes, especially when I was pregnant. I was also at increased risk for being unable to conceive, then of miscarriage, and finally of the baby not growing sufficiently in utero (thankfully, Edwin's a hearty Sowul). I also have had openly visible scars on my neck from my fourteenth birthday onward. And of course there's the emotional baggage that only comes from having cancer.

I say all this not to complain. I'm actually quite proud of being a cancer survivor and think it gave me a unique perspective on life at a young age. But my point is this: it was still CANCER. And the folks at Yahoo! news don't seem to think it's that big a deal.

Here's just one article on Brooke Burke-Chavet's diagnosis. Most of the articles I've read and news clips I've watched say similar things: thyroid cancer is the best type to have; it has a good rate of recovery; the treatment is fairly simple.

Yahoo! News: Brooke Burke-Charvet Diagnosed with "Good" Cancer

Out of those three points, I'll give them one half. I'll agree that thyroid cancer has a good rate of recovery. The surgery isn't as risky as the one for, say, cervical cancer, and the cancer's often caught before its metastasized. On the other side of the coin, though, it can be a very aggressive cancer in younger people, and needs to be attacked accordingly. Like most cancers, it also has a risk for relapse at any point in the patient's life, and puts him/her at higher risk for other cancers as well. And the surgery, while safer than some, carries risk of damage to the voice box and, if lymph nodes are infected, to shoulder musculature (I can't raise my left arm as high as my right for this reason).

As for the treatment, Yahoo! news makes it sound like all the patient needs to do is have the surgery and then take a few radioactive iodine pills, and she'll be fine. It's a lot more complicated than that. I had four surgeries, because the cancer kept spreading to my lymph nodes. And the radio-iodine therapy involves extended stays in hospital isolation rooms. The patient is essentially radioactive, and can't go near other people. It's like being a leper. I'm sure the procedures have gotten a lot more efficient and effective since I went through them (the radioactive iodine I took was in a drink, not a pill; I had to be isolated in a room covered with yellow tarps; and everything I took into the room with me had to be disposed of afterward). But it's still not as simple as "have the surgery, take some pills, you're done."

And to the last point, that thyroid cancer is the best type to have? I feel like that diminishes the difficulties that I and other thyroid cancer survivors endured. Our stories are just as valid as those suffering from other cancers. Our families went through just as much trauma and fear. Our lives were just as disrupted, and we felt just as fragile. 

So to Brooke Burke-Charvet, and to all the other thyroid cancer patients and survivors out there:

Join with me and give our cancer a voice, so that the world will stop dismissing it as "the best cancer" and understand that emotionally, all cancers are created equal.

UPDATE: If you are interested in learning more about thyroid cancer, or would like to donate to thyroid cancer research, here's a great place to start: THYCA


  1. Wow! I never knew you had cancer! My MIL's best friends daughter had thyroid cancer - it is just as serious and scary as any other type of cancer.

  2. I also didn't know that the scar on your neck was a result of thyroid cancer... though I did suspect it when a colleague came to school after summer break with an incision mark similarly shaped to your scar... congratulations on survival. It matters.

  3. I also didn't know that the scar on your neck was a result of thyroid cancer... though I did suspect it when a colleague came to school after summer break with an incision mark similarly shaped to your scar... congratulations on survival. It matters.

  4. I never intended to hide the fact that I had cancer. I just refused to let the cancer define who I was, so I didn't talk about it unless it came up. Interestingly, adults never ask me about my scar, but kids are always asking me. I've never been sure if that's because they're more observant or less inhibited, but either way, it's provoked some good discussions with my students.

  5. Wow. I don't even know how to reply to this. You are such a strong, intelligent woman who deserves nothing less than what life has to offer. Your words here are truly inspiring and there should definitely be more light shone upon thyroid cancer and its history. God bless you and your beautiful family.

    1. Thank you so much Kathy! I am blessed in many ways. Getting to know families like yours is one of them!