Staring at myself on my laptop screen led to a diagnosis that I may have missed otherwise.

We all have our stories about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, but mine is a bit unusual: It's how I discovered I had thyroid cancer.

Last spring, thanks to remote work and countless hours each week staring at myself on my laptop screen during Zoom calls, I noticed something looked off on the right side of my neck. It was subtle––just swollen and a little puffy, but nothing that felt worrisome at the time, so I shrugged it off. But when it did not disappear after a few weeks, I probed the area and felt something. I showed my husband, and he confirmed he felt it too—a lump on my neck.

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Credit: Adobe Stock

Although this was the height of the pandemic in May 2020 and we were all still hunkered down, I was determined to get it looked at. Call it a sixth sense or being a bit paranoid in the middle of a national health crisis, but I know my body and I just had a feeling that this wasn't good, even with the absence of other symptoms.

Dozens of Google searches validated my suspicions when they revealed the area where I noticed the lump—just above the collarbone and to the right of my Adam's apple (technically called the laryngeal prominence)—is right around where the thyroid is located. I scheduled a telehealth consult that led to two ultrasounds and one very uncomfortable biopsy, and nearly two months after I first noticed my neck on that Zoom screen, I had the diagnosis I suspected was coming: papillary thyroid carcinoma.

I immediately went into action mode. Researching, scheduling, planning. Those were things I could have some control over. The cancer inside my body? Not so much.

That blinders-on approach got me through those first three or four days—and then I realized I had to tell people: my parents, my sister, a few close friends, my kids (then 13 and 9). Without realizing it, I found myself in "mom mode," focusing more on reassuring my loved ones that I was going to be just fine, rather than letting them reassure me.

But I wasn't necessarily wrong with my positive-spin approach. Thanks to my research––which was confirmed during my first oncologist appointment––thyroid cancer is one of the most curable forms of cancer, with a five-year survival rate of 98%, although initial prognosis and other factors can play a role.

Every year, about 12,000 men and 33,000 women are diagnosed with thyroid cancer––women nearly three times more likely than men to get the disease, for reasons unknown––according to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC); overall, it is the seventh most common cancer in women.

While thyroid cancer can occur at any age, I am the typical case: a woman diagnosed in her 40s with no known risk factors. My particular type, papillary thyroid cancer, is also the most common, accounting for nearly 80% of all cases. It tends to develop on one side of the thyroid––for me, it was the right side–– and generally grows very slowly but can often spread to lymph nodes in the neck.

My diagnosis meant I also needed to educate myself quickly on what the thyroid actually does, because I admit I had no idea. I learned it's a small, butterfly-shaped gland at the base of your throat, below the Adam's apple, that is part of the endocrine system and its job is to send out hormones that help control many activities in the body—heart rate, breathing, body temperature, blood pressure, menstrual cycles, metabolism. Basically, many of the critical functions that impact your daily life and, in many cases, your quality of life.

Ironically, the thyroid gland generally functions normally even if thyroid cancer is present, which was true for me—and yet, mine still had to be removed. I went into surgery for my thyroid cancer on September 17, 2020, all while I had two kids at home doing remote learning during the pandemic.

Initially, because my tumor was confined to just my thyroid, I was a candidate for what they call a partial thyroidectomy––basically removing the half of the thyroid with the tumor and leaving the other side intact, leaving open the possibility that the remaining half could pick up the slack of my thyroid function and help me potentially avoid thyroid replacement medication. There were a lot of ifs to this scenario, but my surgeon felt it was a real option.

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Credit: Courtesy of Jessica Collins Grimes

Unfortunately, during surgery, they discovered the cancer had spread to a dozen or so nearby lymph nodes––one of the trigger scenarios my surgeon and I had discussed, but still a total surprise to me––so my entire thyroid needed to be removed, along with all the lymph nodes my cancer had spread to.

This also meant I would need a dose of radiation a few months later to destroy any thyroid tissue not removed by surgery. And I was facing what I was hoping to avoid: relying on a daily thyroid hormone replacement pill to not only replace my thyroid's natural function but also to prevent cancer growth or recurrence. It's medication I will need to take forever.

After all of that—the surgery, the dose of radioactive iodine (which made me isolate from my family for several days), and my new daily medical routine—I currently have a clean bill of health. My most recent ultrasounds and blood work, which will be done every six months for the foreseeable future, indicate no signs of cancer or tumor growth. I'm not considered "cured" or in "remission" at this time, but all indications look good.

However, synthetically replacing something my body used to do on its own has proven to be quite a challenge. It's a delicate balance, finding the right dose that keeps your thyroid hormone levels suppressed while not impacting your quality of life. Raise your hormone levels too high, or suppress them too low, and the side effects are pretty awful: complete and thorough exhaustion, heart palpitations, extreme mood swings, weight and temperature fluctuations, and feeling depleted in every sense of the word.

It took nearly six months, but after many dosage tweaks and weekly blood work, my endocrinologist and I eventually landed at a good place, so we are optimistically keeping our fingers crossed––even though there's a good chance my dosage will need to be tweaked again at some point. I still have some bad days when my mood swings or exhaustion take over, and the idea of those scans and endocrinology appointments every six months fills me with anxiety, but for now this is my new, post-thyroid cancer "normal."

I am beyond grateful for my good prognosis, but I can't help but wonder: If it weren't for remote work and staring at myself in all those Zoom calls, how long would it have taken me to notice that subtle lump since I had no other symptoms? What if I didn't follow my gut and get it checked out––even though, like many women at that time, I was juggling working from home and homeschooling my kids and dealing with anxiety about this strange new world we were living in? Would we be talking today about a different prognosis?

No one wants to play the "what if" game, especially with your health, so trust your instincts. If your Spidey-sense tells you something doesn't feel or look right––whether it's a mole that's changed color or a headache that won't go away––it may be your body trying to tell you something.

And don't forget that annual checkup. So many of us put routine physicals on hold during the pandemic (and us moms are notorious for putting everyone else's health needs above our own). But thyroid cancer—and so many other conditions—can go undetected or lurk silently for a long time, only to be discovered during a routine physical exam. Get back into the swing of those regular checkups, screenings, and appointments, and make sure your doctor checks your neck. (You can also do this at home with a mirror and a glass of water; the Thyroid Cancer Survivors Association, Inc. has a step-by-step tutorial).

As for my work-from-home routine, yes, I am still on Zoom calls for most of the day, but my focus now has shifted from the bump on my neck to the now-faded scar at the base of it. It is a visual reminder of my journey, my strength, an appreciation for my body for its ability to heal, and a reminder never to take your health for granted.

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