In 1994 I was your average stressed out 22-year-old college student in my second semester of nursing school. In March of that year I noticed a sizable knot in the right side of my neck. I wasn’t too worried about it because I had always been really healthy. At the encouragement of one of my nursing instructors I finally got it checked out. The doctor put me on antibiotics and told me if it had not gone away in 30 days that I would need to follow up with an ENT doctor. Well it didn’t go away and if anything it was getting larger. I made an appointment with the ENT, but I waited until June so it wouldn’t interfere with nursing school.
In June 1994 I went to see the ENT who was immediately concerned about this growing knot in the side of my neck. He begin discussing such things as leukemia and lymphoma. At this point I was slightly alarmed, but I was still pretty confident it was nothing.
CT scan results the following week revealed I had multiple enlarged lymph nodes on the right side of my neck. A biopsy was performed soon after.
The morning of my surgery I can remember being really nervous. I had only been put to sleep once in my life and that was in first grade for a tonsillectomy. The surgery didn’t take very long and I remember waking up in recovery to my doctor’s voice. He excitedly told me “Christie you do have cancer and it will be a lifelong battle for you, but you do not have lymphoma or leukemia. If you had what I thought you had you wouldn’t have lived six more months.”
A diagnosis of thyroid cancer was confirmed after the biopsy and I was scheduled for a thyroidectomy with a radical modified neck dissection in July. The doctor promised he would try to leave all my muscles and nerves intact. However the surgery was very sensitive and some nerve and/or muscle damage may be unavoidable. My surgery lasted just over eight hours. The doctor removed 40 lymph nodes in addition to my thyroid gland. The tumor was wrapped around my vocal chords. I was In ICU for two days and in the hospital a total of 7 days. I had drain tubes in my neck and chest. There was a trach kit next to my bed due to the high risk of my airway swelling shut. My parathyroid glands were damaged during the lengthy surgery. This meant my body could no longer maintain adequate calcium levels on its own. So in addition to life long thyroid replacement hormone medication I would also have to take high dose of calcium and vitamin D To maintain muscle function.
I recuperated from surgery just in time to start my third semester of nursing school. The plan was to do my first dose of radiation over Christmas break so it would not interfere with school. I struggled thorough my third semester of nursing school because I was sick and could barely keep anything down. Somebody suggested I might be pregnant. Without going into much detail I’ll just say that I had been married since December 1991 and my body was never able to tolerate birth control pills. So I was beginning to wonder if pregnancy was a even a possibility.
I took a pregnancy test and it was positive. I took another pregnancy test with the same results. After a third positive pregnancy test I decided to call my endocrinologist.
I was scheduled to begin radiation the following week, but blood test confirmed that I was indeed pregnant. My doctor told me very bluntly you can have babies later. “Putting off your treatment is not an option for you.” He warned me that putting off treatment would be detrimental to me. He also said my condition could adversely affect my baby. I told him not having my baby was not an option and I refused radiation treatment against medical advice. I finished my fourth and final semester of nursing school in May 1995.
My pregnancy was complex and stressful. New knots and lumps were popping up on the other side of my neck at rapid speed. Before my pregnancy there had been no cancer activity on that side of my neck. But just as my belly was growing so was my cancer. I stopped even feeling my neck. My faith was and is in God. I knew that none of this caught him off guard. I knew he had a plan.
My son, Colton was born August 19, 1995. He was 3 1/2 weeks early. A living, breathing 9 lbs. 21” beautiful miracle. Completely healthy. I was overjoyed, but I knew a storm was brewing. Nevertheless, I was at peace.
My doctor allowed me two months to heal because my son was born by C-section. He decided to do a scan before scheduling radiation since I now had obvious swollen lymph nodes in the left side of my neck. Scans revealed significant left-sided neck involvement that extended along my cervical chain and down into my lungs. This was not good news. My surgeon here in Cleveland did not feel comfortable cutting open my chest. He recommended that I go to Vanderbilt since I now had lung involvement. Long involvement changed the outcome of my thyroid cancer prognosis. Lung involvement drastically reduces your survival rates.
It took a couple of weeks for me to get an appointment at Vanderbilt. During those two weeks, hundreds of people were praying for me.
I won’t say that I wasn’t scared. Thoughts of my baby growing up without his mom would try to creep in my mind, but for the most part I was still at peace. I trusted God’s plan.
When I went to Vanderbilt to meet with the new doctor he decided to re-scan me. Results were the same. Cancer still showed up in my lungs. My surgery was scheduled for the following week. For some reason the day of my surgery just prior to surgery they decided to do one more scan just to make sure that sawing my chest open was necessary. Thank God they did because my lungs were crystal clear. No cancer! I still had a ton of cancerous lymph nodes that had to come out of my neck, but I was so thankful. What a miracle!
My surgery was in October 1995. It It took just over 10 hours for the surgeon to carefully dissect the cancer from the all the muscles and nerves in the left side of my neck. The cancer once again was wrapped around my vocal chords, so much so that the doctor warned my family that I may not have a voice.
After surgery I was once again in ICU with multiple drains in my neck and chest. Just like my previous surgery, I was cut from the back of my ear, down to my shoulder blade and across to the center of my neck. The doctor told me to plan on 5 to 7 days in the hospital, but I had a baby at home. So after walking the ICU unit hundreds of time and a lot of begging and pleading my doctor let me go home on day three. Drain tubes and all. It was funny because the next week was Halloween. I joked that for Colton’s first one his mom was a real life Frankenstein. Haha
My first radiation treatment was scheduled for December 1995. Over the next three years I received four total radioactive iodine treatment. Each of these treatments required a 2 month period were I had to come off all my thyroid medication in preparation. This was miserable and I was not even able to drive or work during this time. I could barely take care of Colton. Each radiation treatment required a 3-5 day hospital stay where I had to be quarantined and couldn’t receive visitors. The nurses wouldn’t even come into my room.
During my last treatment in 1999 I was so sick. It was probably the sickest I ever been in my life. The week after the treatment a painful knot popped up underneath my left ear. Biopsy results confirmed cancer of my left parotid gland. I had surgery the following week to remove the cancer, but didn’t require any further treatment for the new cancer except monitoring.
Fast forward to 2019. I’ve had my life time maximum dose of radioactive iodine radiation. That’s the only treatment for my type of thyroid cancer. I’ve never been in remission or officially cancer free. I still have a few stray lymph nodes in my neck that show up on my scans. I still go to Vanderbilt every six months for follow-up and testing. I still have biopsies from time to time, but the nodes are too deep for the surgeons to safely remove. The removal poses more risk than the faint presence of the disease at this point. It will be a lifelong battle for me. But I’m OK with that. I can honestly say I wouldn’t change a thing about my journey. Through this dreaded disease God has taught me to truly appreciate my life. He has performed miracle after miracle and I have so many more that I could share. He’s showed me that He will provide and take care of me no matter what.
Complications related to thyroid cancer made it impossible for me to get pregnant again, but God saw fit to bless us with another baby through adoption.
Colton, myself, my husband and our daughter Cheyenne in May 2018