When was the last time you had your thyroid function tested? I don’t have the stats, but I’m willing to bet that the answer for most of you will be ‘sometime back in 2004 when I first got pregnant’, or even more likely, ‘never’. I don’t blame you for this, as thyroid health checks are not routinely offered by healthcare systems around the world. Nevertheless, thyroid disorders are becoming increasingly common and varied, ranging from a small, harmless goiter (enlarged gland) to life threatening cancer.
After everything that’s happened in my life this year, I have made it my aim to help redress this balance and show YOU, my readers, why taking your thyroid health seriously is of utmost importance. Please read to the end, take note and share widely.
You never know, it might end up saving a life.
Here’s my story…
If you read my blog or follow me on social media, then you won’t have failed to notice that things have been a little amiss this year. I talked openly about my miscarriage which took place at the end of March, and then things were a little bit quiet on the blog for a while. Less than two months later, I broke it to you that I had been diagnosed with cancer.
What many people don’t know is that in between these two earth shattering pieces of news, I was undergoing a rather traumatic journey which would ultimately lead to the dreaded ‘C’ word being uttered.
To explain it all properly, I’ll have to take you back a bit.
Back when I lived in London, I was feeling lousy and visited the doctor for a check-up. I couldn’t pinpoint what the problem was exactly, but I just felt a bit out of sorts. He ordered a series of tests, one of which was a blood test to ascertain the levels of Thyroxine (the hormone produced by the thyroid) that my body was producing because he thought I might have hyperthyroidism, a condition which is brought about by an overproduction of the hormone. As it turned out, I was actually very slightly hypothyroid, which meant I was producing less of the hormone than the average person. It wasn’t severe enough to require medication at this stage, but he told me to to a repeat the test in a year’s time to make sure that the condition hadn’t worsened.
Fast forward five years, and I had completely forgotten about this advice. I had been too busy moving to Doha, starting a new job, getting married, travelling the world and loving life. I had never felt better. Then I found out that I was pregnant.
It’s amazing what you start to think about and what comes back to you when you’re told you’re going to have a baby. Some call it intuition, others might pass it off as the normal thoughts of a mother who is suddenly safeguarding another life outside of their own. Lying in bed one night, I remembered what that doctor had told me back in London and decided that I had better get myself tested.
It’s lucky that I did, because my Thyroxine levels had now dipped low enough for me to be diagnosed with hypothyroidism and I was immediately prescribed 25 mcg of synthetic thyroxine to boost my levels. Left untreated, hypothyroidism can pose a danger to developing foetuses, and I was glad that we’d managed to catch it before I reached 8 weeks.
Sophia was born in March 2016, a 2.7kg bouncing, bubbly, happy baby and all was well with the world.
Needless to say, once she arrived and we were thrown into the seemingly endless cycle of sleepless nights, breast feeding and nappy changes, I forgot about taking my Thyroxine altogether.
That was, until I became pregnant again in 2018. This time around, knowing my history, I was far more prepared for the tests that I might require and requested a blood test to check my thyroid hormone levels on my very first visit to the doctor. Once again, they spotted that I was hypothyroid and back on the Thyroxine I went.
I was confident that I had done everything in my power to protect my growing child. I was eating well, trying to get out and about and keep active as much as possible, and wasn’t letting myself stress over the small things. I was excited to tell Sophia about the new baby sister or brother that would soon be making an appearance. We were blissfully content.
It was around ten weeks pregnant when I found out that our baby’s heart had stopped beating. A big hole was shot through my heart and an emptiness ensued that I’ve stopped trying to fill. Six months later, I’ve grown to accept that this new hole is there to teach me so many things: how much I can love; how I deal with loss; how life can go on DESPITE this loss; how strong I can be.
Strength was going to be required for this next stage.
My doctor ordered another thyroid test post-miscarriage to check whether it had any part to play in my loss. After nearly five weeks of waiting for my miscarriage to complete naturally, and everything stubbornly staying put, I had given in and gone for a D&C. I was weak and tired post-op and ready to agree with anything the doctor suggested. Anything to make me feel more human.
The results that came back revealed that my hypothyroidism had developed into Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis, an autoimmune disorder which signals the body to attack your own thyroid tissue. Left unaddressed, the thyroid eventually stops producing hormones altogether. I was immediately referred to a specialist.
The specialist very quickly ascertained that I had a visible lump in my neck. He could feel it when I swallowed, and he predicted that it was over a centimetre in diameter. One inconclusive ultrasound later, and they decided to order a biopsy, where they put a huge needle into your neck to extract some cells for examination. This would tell us for sure if the lump we were looking at was benign or malignant.
On the 20th May 2018, I received the news that nobody wants to hear in their life. Cancer is a virulent and destructive disease, that consumes energy, hope, and lives and, aged 32, it was something I had not even contemplated creeping into mine.
It wasn’t long before I was being prepped for surgery, and I was waking up with one less gland than I had before. One less, very important gland. But I was alive. I might have to endure being absolutely exhausted for the next six months and to take artificial hormones for the rest of my life, but I had lived to tell the tale. I was victorious.
…Until several weeks later when, post-Ramadan, the medical board finally got around to examining my case and explained to me that not all of the cancer had been removed. It turns out I actually had two tumours growing on my thyroid, and one of them was right on the edge, so close to other vital glands and tissue that they couldn’t be sure that they’d removed it all without damaging something else.
Just as I thought this incessant rollercoaster was nearing the end, I realised that I had just been suffering through a series of loop-the-loops as we built up to its climax. I was now shunting along up the side of the final precipice, ready to reach the top and plunge down the 500m drop into oblivion. I needed to get some straps on quick, to prepare myself for the fall.
You might think that all of this sounds a little bit dramatic, but allow me to explain.
After everything that has happened so far this year, this final mountain feels like the hardest one to climb.
I’ve prepared my body for treatment by depriving my body of Iodine, with a special low-Iodine diet for twenty days in the lead-up. That means no dairy, no cake on my birthday, no chocolate on the hard days, no seafood, no salt and no food with additives. No eating in restaurants. No takeaways.
In two days time, I will stop taking my thyroid medication altogether. I will quickly become severely Hypothyroid, which will result in extreme tiredness and lethargy, depression and numbness. That day, I will also have a Thyrogen injection administered to help alleviate some of the symptoms. The next day, I will have another. On the third day (Tuesday), I will ingest a dose of radioactive iodine, and will return home to be in partial isolation for ten days.
During this time, my family will move out of the house to protect them, as I will be giving off radiation. I will not see Sophia at all during this time, but my mum and husband will be popping in and out to ensure I am eating and alive! They will have to stay a few feet away from me at all times and spend only a few minutes in the same room.
During my isolation period, I have to shower three times a day, washing the shower down after every use. I have to flush the toilet three times every time I go. I have to brush my teeth with special brushes and toothpaste and suck on special candies. I have to wash my clothes and sheets at least once a day and must wear slippers when moving around and surgical gloves when I touch anything. Anything I’ve touched with my bare hands must be isolated following its use until its radiation levels have gone down.
…I could go on!
I’ve been through so many battles this year, and I am praying so hard that this is the final one now.
I know I’ve got the strength deep down inside of me to face it, just like I’ve faced everything else that’s come before, but the thought of it just keeps on beating me down. If only I could hold Sophia close during this time, I think I’d be OK.
So how can you prevent this happening to you?
Sadly, very little is known about the precise causes of thyroid cancer (or any cancer for that matter!). It seems to be a combination of lifestyle factors including exercise and diet, whether a person smokes, and their wellbeing, etc., as well as a genetic predisposition. There are certain factors that are thought to increase the likelihood of developing thyroid cancer however, including living close to a nuclear power plant, and not using a thyroid guard when undertaking dental x-rays. If you are ever having an x-ray of your face, neck or jaw, I can’t urge you enough to always ask for a guard! They aren’t always offered, and the consequences of risking it can be extremely damaging.
There is a strong family link, so if thyroid disorders like hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism, and especially thyroid cancer, runs in your family then I suggest that you ask your GP for regular blood tests to check your thyroid hormone levels, and ask to be referred to a specialist if anything untoward is detected. Very occasionally, conditions such as Hashimoto’s and hypothyroidism can be linked to the early onset of cancer, as they were for me.
The problem with thyroid cancer is that it is known as the ‘silent cancer’. There are very often little to no symptoms, and patients can live for years without knowing they have it at all. Luckily, it’s also slow-growing and only very rarely reaches the lymph nodes and spreads, so your prognosis once it’s caught it good. I had cancer for a year before they caught it. Who knows what could have happened if we had got wind of it any later.
See your GP immediately if you start to experience any of the following symptoms, seemingly out of the blue:
- Hoarseness or a change in voice
- Pain or tenderness to the neck
- Anxiety, irritability, depression or moodiness
- Sensitivity to hot or cold temperatures
- A change to your menstrual periods
The other problem with this cancer is that it seems to be growing in prevalence. There are over 56,000 new cases that are diagnosed in the US each year, and it’s now the second most common cancer in Qatar, with at least one new case being referred to the hospital that I was referred to each week. Females are more likely to contract the disease, and its aggressiveness increases significantly in older patients.
The absolutely fabulous news about this cancer is that if you are diagnosed, then you have literally won the cancer lottery! CONGRATULATIONS! Thyroid cancer is unique among cancers because thyroid cells absorb iodine, and therefore the Radioactive Iodine Therapy (RAI) that I am about to undergo can be used, which is both targeted and effective. The prognosis is great, the survival rates are fabulous, and you get to sport the best of all battle wounds right across your neck for the rest of your life – your dinner party stories will never be dull again!
Why is thyroid health so important?
Apart from safeguarding you against cancer, protecting this vital gland and keeping a check on your thyroid health is paramount.
The butterfly-shaped Thyroid gland, which sits at the base of your neck just below your Adam’s Apple, influences most metabolic processes in the body, and has a vital part to play in regulating:
- Nervous system
- Body weight
- Muscle strength
- Menstrual cycle
- Body temperature
- And more!
With adequate monitoring of the levels of hormone that your thyroid is producing, you can be safe in the knowledge that each cell in your body is being adequately catered to, and that you’re in full thyroid health!
What’s next for me?
I’m busy stockpiling all of the things I need for the coming weeks and subscribing to all the things that I think will keep me sane (HELLO AUDIBLE!) during my time in isolation when I’m too tired and weak to leave my bed. Your Netflix recommendations would also be very much appreciated if you fancy dropping me a note below!
On the third day after my RAI, I will have a whole body scan to determine whether there is any cancer left in my body and whether the treatment has been effective.
At the beginning of October, I will meet with my doctor again to collect my results and he will be able to let me know whether this nightmare is finally over.
Thank you a million times over to everyone who has sent warm thoughts, prayers or wishes my way over the past few months. Your kindness and care has touched me in ways that you will never know, and has helped to give me the drive I need to get out of the bed in the morning, and face the day with strength and gratitude.
The polarities that emerge in the darkest of times are almost comical. I’m fighting the biggest battle of my life, yet I have forged some of the strongest friendships of my life. I’ve got a physical disease, yet inside I’m stronger than ever before. I cry a lot, but my daughter’s gentle hugs and kisses have never felt so sweet.
Please do me one favour. Read the guidance above thoroughly, and next time you’re visiting your doctor for a check-up, keep your thyroid in mind. Less than 1% of Thyroid nodules end up being malignant, but being vigilant about checking on your Thyroid health could help to save your life if, like me, you are unlucky enough to fall into that 1%.