Thyroid Cancer Survivor

Support Played Key Role for this Survivor

Twenty years ago, Kris Matthews was diagnosed with Stage II thyroid cancer. The entire experience happened very quickly, taking around three months from diagnosis to being deemed cancer-free. But, at the time, for the 30-year-old new mom and her family, facing a cancer diagnosis was very frightening.

A swollen node on the left side of my neck prompted me to see an ENT. He immediately suggested taking out the lymph node to test it. He was concerned that because it was only appearing in a lymph node, it might be Hodgkin lymphoma. I had it removed right away, and it was sent off to pathology. We had a son and daughter under the age of two, I was teaching elementary school and my husband was a flight engineer on active military duty in Saudi Arabia. Even though my life was really busy, waiting for the results was scary. I couldn’t stop thinking about what it might be. When several days passed and I still hadn’t heard from the doctor, I called his office during a break at school.

“Oh, yes,” he said, “you have cancer.”

I got someone to cover my class and drove straight to his office. When he saw how scared I was, I think he realized that he could have told me in a more sensitive way. He explained that it wasn’t Hodgkin lymphoma but was, instead, thyroid cancer. There weren’t any tumors on my thyroid but because it was already in my lymph nodes, it was considered Stage II papillary thyroid cancer. I would need surgery to remove lymph nodes to see if they were affected.

I left his office and drove to the home of a close family friend who was a cancer survivor. We got online and did some research together. I definitely went down the rabbit hole looking for information. It was very scary, and the hardest part was trying to understand the different types of thyroid cancer.

One of my best friends came over that night, and we tried to reach my husband overseas. We called the military base and the Red Cross, who eventually patched a call through to him in the middle of the night. I was thankful they considered it a big enough deal to fly him home right away.

My mom and our family friend were a big part of my support system. We lived in a small town, so my mom insisted we see an oncologist and a surgeon in a nearby city. First, I had a radioactive iodine scan to see if I had any thyroid cells left. It just entailed me taking a pill, but it made me radioactive so I couldn’t be at home around my kids. Instead I stayed with friends who didn’t have kids and was just very careful about not sharing utensils.

After that, I had surgery to remove my thyroid. The surgeon removed 25 lymph nodes on the left side of my neck, which was more than even my doctor expected. The pathology came back while I was still in the hospital, and my surgeon felt pretty comfortable that it had only spread to one or two lymph nodes. The other lymph nodes had been killed by Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, which I didn’t know I had.

I went home from the hospital with staples that ran from my thyroid to behind my left ear. I was prescribed a daily pill that would do everything my thyroid was supposed to. I was lucky in that the dosage they gave me seemed to be the right level right from the start. However, the surgeon accidentally removed my parathyroid during surgery, so I wasn't able to process calcium anymore. As a result, I had to start taking a calcium supplement right away.

My first night home from the hospital, I was in the bathtub and I started having muscle spasms. My hands were clenching uncontrollably. We went straight to the emergency room, and they told me that I needed to take vitamin D to help absorb the calcium. It was frustrating at the time, but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Not only did that force me to be tenacious about getting good care, it required me to start taking good care of myself.

The last part of my treatment included radiation to kill any remaining thyroid cells. I went to the hospital and took another pill. I stayed there for about three days, basically locked in a room, drinking water to flush out the radioactive fluid. Nurses would bring me food and measure how radioactive I was, but I was basically alone the rest of the time. Honestly, it was kind of relaxing, like my own personal three-day radioactive spa treatment. When they decided it was safe for me to go home, I had to leave everything I’d brought with me, including my clothes and books.

Because I had just come back from maternity leave, I didn’t have sick days to use at school. Fortunately, the other staff members pitched in and covered for me, but I had to go back to teaching pretty quickly. I had quite a few staples up my neck and I didn’t want it to scare my sixth grade students, so I explained my situation to the parents, then the kids, and used it as a teaching moment.

After that, any time I got sick, my remaining lymph nodes got pretty big and I’d panic, but my doctor told me to expect it. It took about 10 years for the area under my incision to feel normal again. It was numb and sometimes felt a little prickly, but it wasn’t anything that affected my life. My metabolism isn’t as good as it was before, so that’s an issue.

Our son, who was three months old when I was diagnosed, is about to turn 20, and I’ve been cancer-free the entire time. I get my TSH levels checked annually and, every day, along with my thyroid replacement pill, I take calcium, vitamin D and the other vitamins I need to be healthy. I never get lazy about it.