Honorably discharged from the U.S. Navy, Christina Gonzalez was building her life as a civilian back in 2009 when she received some concerning news during a routine exam.
“I went for a check up and my doctor found a lump in my neck that looked a little suspicious,” she recalled. “I had absolutely no symptoms. My weight was steady; it didn’t fluctuate up or down, and I was sleeping well. I had normal everything, even blood work.”
The lump turned out to be papillary thyroid cancer and thus began a long journey of recovery. The then 28-year-old had recently been honorably discharged from the Navy and was attending Middlesex Community College while working 20 hours a week. Her diagnosis was like a bolt of lightning out of the blue.
On Sept. 24, 2009, Gonzalez had surgery to remove her thyroid. Her tumor was complex and required an additional surgery and radioactive iodine treatment. For a time she lost her voice, but eventually it returned.
The thyroid is a butterfly-shaped gland in the neck that releases hormones that regulate growth and metabolism. Women are more likely than men to have thyroid disease as well as thyroid cancer, said Mary Beth Hodge, MD, Gonzalez’s endocrinologist at Lahey Hospital & Medical Center in Burlington, Mass., but the reason is unknown.
Thyroid cancer is quite common, Dr. Hodge explained. “In the last 10 years or so there seems to be an increased incidence of thyroid cancer. It’s not clear if it is truly an increased incidence or if we are just doing a better job of detecting it with imaging studies we do for other problems. Many of these nodules will get detected incidentally when a patient has no symptoms and then a workup ensures and the patient may learn that that nodule might be thyroid cancer.”
Unlike some other forms of cancer, lifestyle changes cannot prevent the disease and genetics do not play a big part.
“The only risk factor for thyroid cancer is exposure to radiation. People who lived near Chernobyl had a higher incidence of thyroid cancer several years later. There isn’t anything you can do to prevent thyroid cancer,” Dr. Hodge said. “There is a small subset of patients with thyroid cancer that may have a genetic predisposition, but in general, thyroid cancer is not usually a hereditary type of cancer like breast, colon or ovarian cancer.”
The good news is that thyroid cancer can be treated and is not a cancer that commonly causes death. After patients undergo thyroid surgery to remove the cancer, they are usually followed over the years with periodic neck ultrasounds and a tumor marker blood test known as thyroglobulin, to monitor for any sign of recurrent cancer. Some patients may also require radioactive iodine whole body scans.
With no symptoms or a strong genetic link, what do you need to know to protect your health?
“Be aware. If you see or feel a lump in the neck, have it checked out by your doctor,” Dr. Hodge said.
Nine years out from her diagnosis, Gonzalez is grateful for the care she has received and is working to give back to help others. “Being a cancer survivor has changed my life. I donate blood every 56 days,” she said.
Gonzalez recently donated her 19th unit of blood at a drive held at Lahey Hospital & Medical Center, where she now works.
“I just donate as much as I can,” she said.
For more information on thyroid cancer and the screenings and treatments available, visit the Lahey Health Cancer Institute.