My thyroid cancer journey started back in the winter of 2002. I had a case of the flu which I had caught from my granddaughter Lilli after babysitting her on New Year’s Eve 2001. After the flu, I developed an ear infection that forced me to see a doctor. We had just moved from the Washington D.C. area to the small suburb of Crowley, TX. This doctor was just a few blocks from our home and I had never seen him before, so after getting an appointment I went to see Dr. Edward L. Baker, III, D.O. I explained to him that I felt like I had an ear infection and he asked me “How long have you had that mass on your thyroid? Can you swallow okay? Do you have trouble breathing?” I replied that I didn’t have any problems with the exception of a throbbing earache in my right ear. He started the examination and after seeing that my inner ear was infected he proceeded to feel my neck, asking me to swallow, cough, and stretch my head back.
He then told me that he didn’t like the way my neck looked and that he was going to refer me to an endocrinologist for a biopsy of the mass. I thought to myself “this guy is nuts, I feel fine with the exception of the earache!” So after a 10-day round of antibiotics I felt as normal as I had ever felt. I got the appointment a few days later to see Dr. Stephen Weis, an endocrinologist in Fort Worth, who had been in practice for 20 something years and had a great reputation in the medical community.
My husband Al accompanied me to the appointment and was as skeptical as I was. Dr. Weis talked to both of us and ordered a slew of tests, including blood work, ultrasound, and the dreaded Fine Needle Aspiration (FNA). The day of the biopsy I was very nervous because I had never had anything biopsied in my 48 years. Dr. Weis tried to reassure us by telling us that he would be using the same needle that diabetic patients use several times a day to inject their insulin. After five very painful FNAs were taken from the area where the mass was located, I went home to rest for the remainder of the day. Due to a massive ice storm, I was not able to get to the appointment since the entire city was paralyzed. As a result, Dr. Weis called me at home and had me put Al on the other phone so that we could hear the diagnosis. What I heard was what changed my life forever, “Mrs. DePalma, I regret to inform you that the biopsies came back and they are positive and the diagnosis is papillary carcinoma.” He also told me that it was the cancer to have if you got cancer because it was so easy to treat.
He informed me that his office would schedule the appointment with the surgeon. I had my surgery two weeks later and what was supposed to be a three-hour procedure took almost seven hours because the mass had grown tentacles that had wrapped themselves around a parathyroid and several other tendons. I remained hospitalized for six days. I went home and recovered from the ordeal without any complications. I continued seeing Dr. Weis for the next three years as he managed my thyroid TSH, T3 and T4 levels by prescribing Levoxyl in various doses. I took my pill every single morning without fail and the blood work which was done every three months always indicated that the TSH was suppressed with a constant 0.01 reading!
Five years passed in almost a blur and I celebrated my fifth year cancer-free with a shopping spree. A few weeks after the celebration, I felt a pea-sized lump on the right side of my neck and I called my new endocrinologist Dr. Habbu. He remarked that it was normal for all of us to get infected nodules and not to worry. I had an appointment with Dr. Baker, my primary provider, and I mentioned it to him as well. He immediately jumped to action and scheduled an appointment to see a different endocrinologist Dr. Imran Patel, who then had me see Dr. Darnell, a general surgeon who would do a lumpectomy and get it biopsied. The results of the biopsy showed that it was papillary cancer once more. I was scheduled for a whole body scan which meant that I would have to go off my Levoxyl for six weeks and thus began my trip to what we thyca patients call “Hypo-hell.”
Hypo-hell is really the most lousy flu you ever had multiplied by ten. You find that any energy you had is wiped out and you get so cold that you cannot get warm no matter how many heavy sweaters or blankets you put on top of you. I have wondered if that is what it would feel like if a dead body had feeling??? You also loose an unimaginable amount of hair which is alarming to you – each brushing you get a brush full of hair. Your skin becomes SO DRY that no lotion can rehydrate it. However, I feel that the depression that invaded my life was the worst symptom of all because by this point I didn’t care about anything or anyone.
I went on to the hospital to receive the dose of radioactive iodine in pill form to show where the cancer was growing. Well my scan showed that I had no cancer, yet I had the results of the biopsy that showed I had it once more. The medical team decided that it would be best if I had a PET scan! I had been asking for one ever since I was originally diagnosed, but the doctors would tell me that my insurance would not pay for it and that it was too expensive for me to afford! Well lo and behold my insurance did pay for it and the other three that I have had since because the radiologist discovered that I have become radioactive resistant. The PET scan indicated that the cancer was found on the right side of my neck which meant that I would have to have a complete right neck dissection.
Dr. Tarik Yanus was the ENT who performed that procedure and discovered that of the 31 lymph nodes that he removed eight were cancerous. Six weeks of recovery followed and life was back on track once more. However, my TSH was coming back higher than before, so Dr. Patel ordered a copy of the PET scan be sent to him and he also discovered that there was some activity on the thyroid bed as well as on various areas of the lungs. He referred me to a radiation oncologist Dr. Yung Lee who told me that there was nothing he could do for me and he recommended a second opinion.
I had been doing my homework and I discovered that M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, which was five hours away, accepted my insurance, so I asked Dr. Lee if he could request a consult with them. I was assigned to Dr. Rena Sellin and I have had a myriad of tests that revealed that I have eight lesions which are scattered through the lungs as well as three nodes on the thyroid bed. I see Dr. Sellin every four months. She has advised me that there are several medicines that have been developed in the last two years that stop the growth of the cancer cells. However, they will make me very ill and she feels that as my metastatic papillary cancer has not grown as fast as she had expected it to grow, she should hold off prescribing any of the kinase inhibitors.
So I continue to control this damn disease by eating healthy, keeping active by volunteering at the Crowley House of Hope Clinic as a patient representative, spending time with my family and traveling with my husband. I also started a support group on Facebook called Thyca Super Women which has 24 members as of November 29 2012. This has given me the blessing of meeting so many wonderful women whom I am I proud to call my sisters.