Surviving papillary thyroid cancer taught me to embrace life’s messiness
I was a junior at Texas A&M University when I first got diagnosed with papillary thyroid cancer after a quick visit to the campus health clinic.
It came as a total surprise. The only symptom I’d had was a raspy voice. Otherwise, I was young and perfectly healthy.
Fortunately, my doctors caught the cancer early, so I knew I’d probably survive. But I did worry it would ruin all my plans for the future. At the time, I was still dating my high school sweetheart – the man who would one day become my husband. We wanted to get married, build a life together and start a family. I was terrified that my thyroid cancer diagnosis would bring an end to all that.
As it turns out, all of those things did still happen – just in a totally different way than I’d envisioned. What I learned is that life is messy and sometimes things fall apart. But even if it isn’t picture-perfect, you can still build something beautiful with what’s left.
Developing a ‘seize the day’ mentality
I’m originally from Houston, so my parents knew of MD Anderson’s reputation as the very best at treating cancer. A friend of theirs had worked there for years, too, and she spoke very highly of its doctors. They took her advice and got me an appointment.
At MD Anderson, I had surgery to remove my thyroid gland, followed by radioactive iodine therapy to kill any remaining thyroid tissue. Within 12 months, I showed no evidence of disease.
But once you’ve had any type of cancer, the odds of developing another one are significantly higher. I remember thinking about this fact very hard back then. Eventually, I decided, “Well, I didn’t die this time. So, I might as well really live.”
I’ve been doing that ever since. Because the way I see it is, tomorrow may be awful, so all we have is today. Let’s make it amazing.
Building my beautiful, non-traditional family
One way I made the most of my life was by expanding my family – even though my ex-husband and I were no longer together. We’d ended up adopting our eldest child, because my hormones were all over the place when we were trying to get pregnant. Later, we did a round of IVF and added two biological children to the mix.
But when our marriage ended four years ago, I faced a dilemma: I still had two frozen embryos left. The fertility clinic said I had three options: donate them to science, destroy them or let someone else use them. None of those choices was really acceptable.
Instead, I opted to have the remaining embryos transferred to my uterus. If either of them successfully implanted and resulted in a live birth, my ex-husband and I would share custody of any child(ren) that resulted.
MD Anderson helped make our twins possible
I am pleased to report that our twins just turned 3. And my ex and I continue to parent them as a team. But if it hadn’t been for my nurse practitioner at MD Anderson, Johnny Rollins, the twins might not even be here.
To keep all three of us healthy, Johnny had to work closely with my OB/GYN and endocrinologist. That meant adjusting the dose of my synthetic thyroid hormone almost daily by hand. By the time the twins were born in April 2018, though, I’d made it to 34.5 weeks gestation. And they were both perfect and weighed in at seven pounds each. I was incredibly grateful.
Reclaiming my health by controlling what I can
Another thing I did was get my health under control after the twins were born. My weight had fluctuated tremendously after my thyroid was removed, even though I was taking synthetic hormones to compensate for it.
I often felt out of control, so the situation was very demoralizing. But one day, I realized that the ways in which I chose to strengthen and nourish my body were things that were well within my power to decide. So, I started working really hard and taking better care of myself.
First, I lost all the baby weight. Then, I decided I wanted to push myself further. So, I became a certified personal trainer and nutritional coach. I also got in good enough shape that I qualified to participate in the thirteenth season of the American Ninja Warrior competition in Tacoma, Washington this spring, which was really exciting.
After everything my body had been through, it’s been an enormous gift to have my health back.
Why I keep coming back to MD Anderson
I’ve been cancer-free for more than 15 years now. But I still come back to MD Anderson annually for my check-ups. Frankly, I can’t imagine going anywhere else. Even when I was living in Alaska in the early 2000s, MD Anderson oversaw my treatment for a relapse at a hospital in Seattle.
Every time I visit MD Anderson, I breathe a huge sigh of relief, because I know I’m going to be OK. I’ve felt that way ever since I first walked through its doors in 1998. And I still feel that way today.
I appreciate that feeling even more now, though, because as an adult, I recognize what goes into making it. It’s not just about hiring the right people – it’s about creating a whole culture that really wraps around you as a patient, and makes you feel completely supported. That’s what MD Anderson has always meant to me. And no matter what twists and turns my future may hold, that’s the one thing I expect to always stay the same.