The explosion at Chernobyl in April1986 sent radioactive clouds across great Britain. I was living in the Peak District at the time, and this was one of the areas affected. In retrospect, I believe this is when I contracted thyroid cancer.
My throat has always been my weakest spot. As a child I suffered constant attacks of tonsillitis, occasional bouts of laryngitis, and finally had my tonsils removed at the age of 18. Throughout my working life, as a teacher, if I was run down, my throat became infected.
Consequently when I had a pain in my neck in October 2001, I didn’t think too much about it until it became very painful. I went to the GP but he could see nothing wrong and told me to take paracetamol. The next day he gave me stronger painkillers and antibiotics. On the third day, after a sleepless night with unbearable pain,I was referred directly to hospital.
I was admitted to a medical ward and put to bed in the corner; I remember very little of the week spent there; the strong pain relief must have been sedative too. On my last day, after a variety of tests, the doctors decided the problem was almost certainly to do with the thyroid gland and that there may have been a haemorrhage. Further tests were needed but nothing could be done until the swelling had receded. By this time the pain had gone and I returned to work and waited -and waited.
Fine Needle Aspiration
Suffice to say that this hospital mismanaged my case, and after an official complaint I was referred to another. Here I saw a thyroid specialist who tested the gland with a fine needle aspiration; using an ultra-sound scanner to direct the needle, he withdrew a tissue sample for analysis. This procedure was exceptionally painful.
The Thyroid gland
The thyroid gland is a butterfly shape with an isthmus across the larynx and a lobe each side. The test results indicated that the right hand lobe of the thyroid should be removed. I waited eleven months for the operation in January 2003.
An incision, about ten centimetres long was made at the base of my neck and the offending tissue removed. I was in hospital four days then returned home to await results. In consultation a fortnight later, papillary carcinoma was confirmed and I was told that the left hand lobe must now be removed immediately. A month later the surgeon cut through the same scar, which was on the line of a natural crease in the neck.
The thyroid gland, unlike any other organ in the body, absorbs iodine. Most cancers are treated with chemotherapy or radiation; this one is treated by using radioactive iodine to kill any remaining thyroid cells in the body. The positive part of this is that you don’t loose your hair nor does the treatment go on for weeks; the downside is that by becoming radioactive, you have to be isolated for up to a week.
Radioactive Iodine Treatment
It was all very much like a scene from science fiction. The radioactive pill came in a protected box, inside a special sort of thermos. A doctor in special clothing administered it; I swallowed the tiny capsule with a large cup of water and was left alone in my lead-lined room. Food and drink were left outside the door; I was tested each morning by a physicist from the department of nuclear medicine with his Geiger counter. I was not allowed to leave until the half-life of the radiation reached an acceptable level. Fortunately this was on the fifth day of my incarceration. I hadn’t been unhappy in my cell. I’d been warned about the solitary nature of my stay and had taken in all sorts of pastimes to keep me occupied.
After a total of four months off work, I went back to my teaching but felt constantly tired and very weak. I tried, unsuccessfully, to obtain early retirement on grounds of ill health; A year after the first operation I found another lump. This was removed and found to be the same malignant tissue.
I took early retirement from work and my husband and I came to live in our house in France. Medically, this was an excellent decision. My British surgeon advised being checked again once we were settled and I arranged this a few months later.
An ultra-sound scan of my whole neck revealed at least a dozen nodules, probably containing thyroid cancer. I cannot fault the French health service, they were so thorough and efficient. I was immediately booked in for an operation to remove these nodules, just weeks later in December 2004.
It was a long and complicated procedure requiring three incisions in my neck.
My larynx collapsed as I was brought out of the anaesthetic and I was in intensive care for two days. I couldn’t speak because one of my vocal chords had been unavoidably paralysed during the procedure.
Speech therapy helped a little; I had two sessions a week for ten weeks. I also had the necessary radioactive iodine treatment. It was slightly different in France; the food was better for a start!
Six months later my breathing was so difficult that I was waking up in the night gasping for air, so another operation was needed in 2006 to open up my airway. Although my breathing improved tremendously I couldn’t speak at all. More speech therapy, but this time I was unable to progress beyond a loud whisper.
I was given a routine MRI scan at one of my follow up appointments in 2007 and a tumour in the pharynx was indicated. Another operation was carried out, and it was the worst yet. I was unable to eat or speak for several weeks. I survived on liquids and codeine prescribed by my GP.
Thyroid cancer had recurred, so again, the solitary confinement for radioactive iodine treatment. My fourth dose posed a few more problems when the iodine leaked in to my salivary glands and caused unbearable pain.
It is now 2011 and I am still not free of thyroid cancer; there are two nodules in my neck and another two in my lungs. These are monitored and measured every six months.
Help and Support
There is an organisation for survivors of thyroid cancer which I have found to be very helpful.