A lurking sickness
May 1, 2018
An estimated 12 million people in the United States are sick right now and don’t even know it.
They are sick with something that can’t be seen from the outside. It’s a sickness that comes in many different forms. It’s a monster that haunts each person differently.
In many cases, they’ve learned to live with their chronic symptoms, making excuses for why they feel this way and why things are happening. Blaming the constant fatigue and insomnia on stress, attributing their sudden gain or loss of appetite to what they had eaten the day before, or saying their constant memory loss and lack of focus is due to boredom.
In reality, something much more serious lies beneath the surface. There are another eight million people who have suffered or still do suffer from the same diseases.
These people have been diagnosed, sought treatment for their conditions, overcame their symptoms and are winning the battle against their conditions.
A total of 20 million people in the United States are affected and about 57,000 thousand new people are affected each year. Even worse, incident rates have dramatically increased in the recent years. These monsters are the reason for over 2,000 deaths in 2017 and 2018 each.
These monsters are thyroid disorders and cancers.
The thyroid is a small gland in the middle of the neck whose job is to release thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3). These two hormones play a critical role in the way one’s entire body functions. When this vital organ is not functioning properly because of a disorder or cancer, the body receives either too little or too much of this fundamental hormone, causing a range of side effects including, but not limited to, anxiety and depression, mental fogginess and poor concentration, increased heart rate/heart palpitations, sudden weight gain or loss, treatment-resistant high cholesterol, heat intolerance, and perpetually feeling cold.
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There are many different types of thyroid conditions and cancers that can affect a person. The most common of these conditions are hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism. These diseases manifest and affect each person differently.
Although hyperthyroidism and hypothyroidism sound very much alike, they are complete opposites in the ways they affect the body.
Hyperthyroidism is a disorder in which the thyroid gland produces an excess amount of thyroid hormone, thus causing side effects such as rapid heartbeat and hot flashes.
On the other side of the spectrum, hypothyroidism is a condition in which the body lacks sufficient levels of thyroid hormone. There are two big causes to hypothyroidism: inflamation of the thyroid, also known as Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, and the surgical removal of partial or the entire thyroid gland.
In many cases, these disorders occur alone for varying reasons, but sometimes something more daunting can lie beneath the surface.
When Glen Rock parent Barbara Kopyta was in her late 30s, she started to notice troubling symptoms: hair loss and heart palpitations
“I was starting to realize that after a shower, I would see a bunch of hair in the drain. I was losing my hair,” Kopyta said.
While Kopyta suffered from the symptoms of hypothyroidism, the actual cause was something more troubling. She was diagnosed with papillary thyroid cancer in September 2008.
Now working as a long term substitute in the Media Center, Kopyta has beaten her diagnosis.
In some cases, however, symptoms of hypothyroidism or hyperthyroidism are not as apparent as in cancer diagnoses.
Gym teacher Kelly Dowell was also diagnosed with papillary thyroid cancer early in the summer of 2009.
Dowell said she never experienced any symptoms that showed signs of either hypothyroidism or hyperthyroidism.
“I didn’t have any symptoms or anything, nothing… I would have never known,” she said.
The way that thyroid conditions and cancers manifest and affect each host is different from person to person, but all have a devastating effect on the human body.
The most common cause of these cancers is papillary thyroid cancer, the carcinoma that has affected both Kopyta and Dowell.This disease accounts for 80-85% of all thyroid cancers, and is most commonly found in women 30-50 years of age. There is no known cause of papillary thyroid cancer, but doctors have confirmed it is a slowly progressing cancer.
Although many of these cancers and conditions are fairly easy to treat, it is better to find these illnesses in the earlier stages of progression to ensure an easier road to recovery.
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Barbara Kopyta had been suffering from thyroid issues ever since she had her children, her youngest, Matt, born in 2000. None of her issues had been severe enough for her to seek treatment.
Kopyta was more than aware of her symptoms, being that hypothyroidism runs in her family. But as far as papillary carcinoma, she is the first in her family to be diagnosed
“I never thought it was cancer, I just thought I had official hypothyroid.”
In the summer of 2008, her symptoms took a turn for the worst and became more severe. Kopyta noticed that she was experiencing hair loss and heart palpitations, and suspected that she finally developed hypothyroidism.
Upon visiting her endocrinologist, she received an ultrasound showing the same enlarged nodules, a small swelling of cells, that she’d had for several years but they had now become big enough to perform a needle biopsy on.
Kopyta’s endocrinologist gave her the option of performing the biopsy immediately in her office. Kopyta agreed, only to later find out she had papillary thyroid cancer.
“When I received the call from my doctor, it was 9 o’clock at night, and I saw the caller I.D. and I turned to my husband and I said ‘This isn’t good news, just so you know.’ Doctors don’t call at 9 o’clock at night with good news,” she said.
Being a former physician, Kopyta, although surprised by her diagnosis, says that she didn’t go into a “panic mode” but instead did her research on disease and even had her surgeon lined up by the next day.
Her family, while also shocked and distressed by her diagnosis, avoided panicking as well. Kopyta claims that after doing their research and learning that it was very curable and easily treated, her family became a strong and everlasting support system.
Kopyta underwent a full thyroidectomy in October 2008. Her calm and focused outlook followed her into the operating room, although there was uncertainty of whether or not the cancer had manifested in both sides of her thyroid. Though her doctors knew the carcinoma was contained and localized, there is never 100% certainty until you’re in surgery.
Her doctors had spoken about only taking the side of her thyroid infested with tumors out, but once in surgery, it was clear that both sides were affected and must be removed.
With any surgery, there are risks and complications that can arise before, during, or after operation. So to insure her health and safety, Kopyta was kept overnight in the hospital.
The biggest risks of thyroid removal surgery are damage to the nerve that is connected to the voice, which can result in a permanent voice change or loss of voice entirely. There is also risk of damage to small, microscopic glands that surround the thyroid called the parathyroid glands. If damaged, they can affect the body’s calcium levels and result in heart problems such as palpitations.
Fortunately for Kopyta, she experienced none of these symptoms while hospitalized, and left the hospital a day later with a positive outlook towards a slow but steady recovery.
Because thyroid disorders and cancers are passed down genetically, not only are Kopyta’s blood relatives at risk of developing thyroid disorders, but her children are susceptible to developing papillary thyroid cancer as well.
“Since that time, my brother has been diagnosed with Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, which is a form of hypothyroidism. Now that they know my history, they watch him very, very closely. Both of my children have been tested, the pediatrician did that right after my diagnosis,” she said.
Kopyta’s knowledge of her family history and her calm and focused perspective through her journey made the stress of the diagnosis and treatment much easier to bare. She makes sure that her children, as well has her other family members, stay aware of their health and symptoms to ensure that any disease is treated swiftly and easily.
“It’s about knowing, and that information is worth a lot,” Kopyta said.
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Dowell was also diagnosed and treated for papillary thyroid cancer between the summer and early fall of 2009.
Dowell’s cancer was discovered after a routine physical when a nurse noticed something unusual and recommended that she received an ultrasound.
While receiving an ultrasound, Dowell was given the option of doing a needle biopsy right there in the office, which she agreed to have done.
Within a month, Dowell had received the news that nodules in her thyroid were cancerous. She said that although she knew thyroid cancer ran in her family, she never experienced any symptoms prior to her diagnosis.
She had also received testing for cancer-related genes after her mother’s diagnosis of breast cancer and says that she was more aware and attentive about her health after that.
When she was diagnosed, Dowell also said that she did not go into a panic mode, but did her research and was determined to stay calm and focused during this time.
Dowell’s focused outlook followed her into the operating room where she underwent a full thyroidectomy in 2009 to remove the carcinoma. With her wife and mother at her side, she remembers feeling calm, even joking around prior to the operation.
Only one side of the thyroid had visible nodules, but the other side was sent down to pathology during surgery and both sides were removed. Dowell was very happy that her surgeon removed both sides at once to avoid possibly undergoing the surgery again
“I’ve known people that have had the surgery and you have to go back and it’s horrible. I’m so glad that he did it all in one shot,” she said.
Dowell stayed overnight at the hospital, and said she didn’t have a lot of pain while in the hospital. She says that the hardest thing for her to deal with once she went home was sleeping in her bed.
“I couldn’t lay back flat. I had to be upright because my neck was weaker from the surgery.”
Dowell’s road to recovery was smooth and steady. She had no pain or other symptoms after her surgery, even when she started taking synthroid.
“I never ever felt any oddities from not having my thyroid. I never had any weird mood swings or fatigue or any palpitations or any things like that.”
After her diagnosis, Dowell has spoken to other people who have overcome the same cancer she once faced, as well as other thyroid diseases, and was always interested to hear about the challenges and symptoms others dealt with. She finds that she can’t relate to these issues, as she never faced any symptoms or unusual pain, herself..
Since Dowell’s diagnosis, nobody in her family has been diagnosed with any thyroid cancers or conditions. She continues to closely monitor her health today.
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Thyroid cancers and conditions have become more common in the previous decades. There are genes that have been associated with the disease, but the exact cause is unknown. All doctors know is that these conditions are passed down from blood relatives to other blood relatives.
Dr. Sarfraz Zaidi is a leading endocrinologist in the U.S.A. He is an expert on thyroid conditions and cancers, as well as many other diseases. Dr. Zaidi is a published author and has written several books based on his 37 years of medical knowledge.
According to his website, thyroid cancer is a slowly progressing cancer, which leads to a favorable prognosis.
There are no definite causes of thyroid cancers, but there have been certain genes and other things that have been linked to those diagnosed with the disease.
The first is a Vitamin D deficiency. “The Power of Vitamin D”, an Amazon best-seller written by Dr. Zaidi, goes into incredible detail about the multitude of health benefits Vitamin D has for the human body. One of these benefits is the prevention and treatment of various cancers, including thyroid cancers.
Dr. Zaidi says that having healthy levels of vitamin D can help in the treatment of cancers but also lessen the growth and development of the disease.
Another cause of thyroid cancers and conditions is radiation exposure. According to Dr. Bridget Brady, victims of radioactive fallout, such as Chernobyl and Hiroshima, have been known to develop thyroid cancers.
Dr. Brady is the the first fellowship-trained endocrine surgeon in Austin, Texas. She is an expert in disease of the thyroid, parathyroid, and adrenal glands. Dr. Brady has performed thousands of thyroidectomies and parathyroidectomies in her time as a medical professional.
According to Dr. Brady, prior to 1950, low doses of radiation were used to treat adolescents with tonsilitis and acne on the face. Because of the locations of these diseases, the radiation would infect the thyroid, and lead to the manifestation of thyroid cancers.
While these and many other medical professionals have realized many possible causes of thyroid cancer, one definitive reason for this disease to manifest has not been found yet. And although countless medical professionals and organizations are working hard everyday to find a cure and help those affected, there is a long road ahead before this cancer is defeated once and for all.
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There are over 56,000 new cases of thyroid cancer diagnosed cancer each year in the U.S., and 12 million people right now have a thyroid disease or cancer and are completely unaware. And every year, 2,000 people will die because they didn’t know.
This leaves anxiety to be had, questions to be answered. Am I one of those 12 million? Where do I go, what is the first step to knowing, or possibly treating, a disease I didn’t even know I had?
If you think you are continually experiencing symptoms of hyperthyroidism, hypothyroidism, or any form of thyroid cancer, the first step is to always speak with your doctor. You should also inform your doctor of any family history, this goes for any disease or disorder.
If you have a family history, even if you have never experienced symptoms before, it is important to get blood work regularly and have your doctor test your thyroid levels. It is not commonly done in blood tests, but you can ask your doctor to do so.
If you do find that you have a thyroid disease, it is important to stay optimistic and focused through this journey. The news may be frightening and upsetting, but a calm and focused outlook will help you more than a panicked outlook does.
If you see someone you know experiencing any symptoms, talk to them about it. It’s easy to blame these symptoms on other aspects of life, but in many cases something more severe may lie under the surface, and it is important to bring it to their attention so they can seek proper treatment.
One student, who has chosen to stay anonymous, states that their sister has been affected by both hyperthyroidism and hypothyroidism.
“We just tried to take it in stride, go with it, and figure out how to deal with it,” she said
When going through these tough times, it is important to have a good support system in your life. The right people will help you find the light in the dark journey, and help you maintain a calm and focused outlook.
A good outlet for those seeking advice or people who have gone through similar struggles, Websites, such as Thyroid Cancer Survivors’ Association help local support groups and chat forums of people who are fighting or have survived this disease.
Finally, it is important to not lose hope. The journey will not be easy no matter what condition you may have, but knowing is half the battle, and anyone is strong enough to get through the rest.
For more information, please visit any of these websites: