October 5, 2014
When people first heard that I had cancer, based on people’s responses and by their own admission, most of the time the reaction was shock and surprise. Totally valid. The only reason I myself didn’t fall off my chair in sheer disbelief was probably because I was steeling myself for the news. Fists clenched, feet firmly planted on the ground, I was looking the doctor right in the eye. Perhaps I thought I could scare the bad news away.
Before the doctor at the university health clinic found the lump on my neck, I had never really heard of thyroid cancer. I had a vague idea that someone in my family had something of the sort, but nobody spoke about it. Sometimes we downplay a health issue, because maybe it is embarrassing, or we don’t want to worry people, or the individual may only want their close friends and family to know. Sometimes there is stigma involved in those decisions and people may fear the consequences of disclosing a particular health concern they are dealing with. Sometimes, it isn’t fear, it could be that the individual does not want to deal with sympathy or pity or well-meaning people inquiring about what is going on. I was thinking about the many different ways that people respond and deal with news like cancer. One notable thing about this disease is that there are some types of cancer with a fairly strong family link / genetic cause. The causes of thyroid cancer are not well known. The 2 questions that every health professional asked upon hearing my diagnosis were:
Do you have a family history of thyroid cancer?
Were you exposed to radiation at a young age?
The answer to these questions was always a variation of “Umm, no, I don’t think so.”
The incidence rate of thyroid cancer is the growing faster than other cancers in Canada and is the most common endocrine cancer [1, 2]. Perhaps, due to better screening, more thyroid cancers are being detected and found. In this instance, the public health student in me jumps to prevention. Unfortunately, not much is known about the specific causes of cancer yet, but in general diet and lifestyle, social stress in work, family or communities, exposure to radiation and environmental pollutants could all play some role . Cancer itself is not just one disease but over 100 different ones that are grouped- and each type of cancer is different (what!?) [2,3].
Screening is a part of thyroid cancer prevention but I had never heard of the check your neck campaign before. I suppose that’s how relatively underpromoted thyroid cancer is. Checking the breast and prostate – yes, I had heard of those but not the neck. The neck is not even a part of the body that people are generally shy about or around more private areas. Maybe that’s the problem. Nonetheless – check your neck please. This request comes with the note that many people have benign (not cancerous) nodules on their thyroid and it’s nothing to worry about. This is just a first step and if there’s anything suspicious, talk to your doctor about it.
Especially if family history is a potential risk factor, it seems prudent to share this information so we all have a good idea of where we come from and what we’re linked to, despite stigma or inconvenience. Of course, reality is always more complicated than that. However, if possible this information should at least be shared with those who are first degree relatives – biological parents, siblings, children. Awareness – that’s the term I have on my mind these days. I feel hyper aware of my situation. I am also aware that sharing my story means that more people know that thyroid cancer exists. At least my family now knows so I do not feel like I am in a personal moral grey area. They say knowledge is power, and in this instance, I think it is better to be aware of the disease, not underestimate thyroid cancer and to watch out for it.
I didn’t see this coming and I sometimes feel betrayed by my body. Then I wonder if I was the one who betrayed my body. I still don’t know what caused this thyroid cancer and probably never will. I take consolation in the fact that it’s relatively “early”. Now I pass on this message to awaken some sense of awareness around thyroid cancer in you.