LEWISTOWN - Kathy McCartney, of Burnham, has been a thyroid cancer survivor since 2002.
During the past 10 years, she has undergone four surgeries, a number of radioactive iodine treatments and a personal journey that has led her to a "new normal," she said. Though McCartney will spend the rest of her life suppressing the cancer growing inside, she is dedicated to living life on her own terms and educating others on thyroid cancer awareness.
"I don't dwell on having cancer," McCartney said. "I know that it's there somewhere, but it doesn't consume or control me. September is Thyroid Cancer Awareness month and my purpose here is to raise awareness."
According to the National Cancer Institute, thyroid cancer forms in the thyroid gland, an organ at the base of the throat that makes hormones to control heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature and weight. Thyroid cancer is one of the only cancer types currently experiencing an increase in prevalence, with an anticipated 56,460 diagnoses and 1,780 deaths in 2012.
"Prevalence of thyroid cancer is increasing because imaging technology has become more common," said Dr. Nargess Kaviani, endocrinologist with Geisinger-Patton Forest. "A doctor may do a cat scan or ultrasound of the upper-body and find nodules, or masses, attached to the thyroid gland. The majority of nodule findings happen by accident."
Usually, there are no symptoms during the early stages of thyroid cancer, but it's important for patients to be aware of signs in case clinical analysis is needed, reads the Thyroid Cancer Survivor Association website. Patients may be able to feel a lump or swelling in the neck and experience voice changes or difficulty breathing and swallowing.
Those who have family history of thyroid cancer are at a higher risk and should speak to their doctor, Kaviani said. People who have had radiation treatment to the neck or head are also at a higher risk for thyroid cancer, she added.
Though 95 percent of thyroid nodules turn out to be benign, the discovery of a possibly cancerous mass, usually one centimeter or larger, is followed with a biopsy, Kaviani said. If the mass is found to be malignant, the first step is to remove the entire thyroid gland and any cancerous lymph notes. After surgery, the patient then goes through radioactive iodine treatment which burns away any remaining thyroid tissue, she said.
"Even if surgery is performed by the best surgeon in the world, there is usually three percent of the thyroid tissue left, which is why the radioactive iodine treatment is used," Kaviani said. "To be skilled in this area, a surgeon should perform at least 30 thyroidectomy procedures a year to be considered skilled in this area, keeping in mind this is a minimum."
After the thyroid gland is removed, patients are given levothyroxine, a synthetic hormone medication that replaces hormones previously produced by the thyroid, said Kaviani. The drug also prevents any residual thyroid tissue from creating hormones and growing more cancerous cells, she added.
"The possibility of recurrence depends entirely on surgeon skill and the complete removal of the thyroid," Kaviani said. "An incidence of residual cancer occurrence means the original surgery was performed poorly and the thyroid was not completely removed, resulting in the continued growth of cancerous tissue. A recurrence means that everything was removed, but the patient was not put on enough levothyroxine to prevent thyroid activity, resulting in the development of new cancer tissue."
According to the Thyroid Community website, 35 percent of thyroid cancer patients experience a recurrence within 40 years after the initial treatment and two-thirds of those recurrences happen within 10 years after hormone therapy.
McCartney has had three residual occurrences and will have to take thyroid replacement hormones for the rest of her life, constantly monitor the cancer with blood tests and ultrasounds. Every six months, she will have to drive six hours to New York for regular visits with her endocrinologist.
"When you hear the word 'cancer,' it turns everything upside down," McCartney said. "But, with education, support and determination ... you can overcome it. I'm living my life on my own terms. Things are good right now."
Information provided by cancer.net.