A Survivor’s Story: One Woman’s Battle With Thyroid Cancer
Patient Perspective At the age of 29, Melissa Salvatore, thought she had it all. Grateful for a fulfilling job and a wonderful husband, she was looking forward to the future and had even planned to speak to her doctor about family planning.
In March of 2013, Melissa was undergoing her annual physical when her doctor paused a long time on her neck and then asked, “How long has your neck been so swollen?”
Things moved very quickly from there. Within a few weeks, Melissa had an ultrasound and a CT. The scans showed a nodule almost eight centimetres large. A biopsy revealed the mass was papillary thyroid cancer. Though papillary is generally considered the most treatable form of thyroid cancer, Melissa’s was more serious because it had moved into her lymph nodes.
“At the time I knew nothing about thyroid cancer. I knew I had a thyroid but didn’t really know what it did. We are told to check our skin for moles or for lumps in our breasts but no one ever talks about checking your neck.”
Self-education is key
Melissa dealt with her shock and confusion by researching her condition. “There was not much information out there but I did find Thyroid Cancer Canada,” she recalls. “Their website is great. I will always say that one of the most important things I did was educate myself. It helped me feel more in control of a very uncontrollable journey.”
Melissa was scheduled for surgery in May. “My surgery was very invasive. They took out forty lymph nodes and the entire thyroid gland. The involvement of the lymph nodes made the surgery more invasive and for a long time I had lingering pain.”
Yet already her cancer was beginning to teach her to look at life differently. “I had my thirtieth birthday a couple of weeks later. I remember others complaining about how old they felt, and feeling impatient with them. We should be grateful for every year we are able to celebrate.”
"Unlike most cancers, thyroid cancer patients take radioactive iodine to treat their disease. They are kept in isolation for three days to ensure that they don’t endanger others with their body’s radioactivity."
Radioactive iodine and isolation
Unlike most cancers, thyroid cancer patients take radioactive iodine to treat their disease. They are kept in isolation for three days to ensure that they don’t endanger others with their body’s radioactivity. After surgery, Melissa’s radioactive iodine treatment left her feeling even more afraid and isolated. “Our house was small and my husband couldn’t even stay with me during the treatment. He had to stay with my parents for the three days to prevent harm from my radioactivity.”
Sadly, Melissa and her family had more challenges to face. “I thought things were as bad as they could be but everything got a whole lot worse,” she explains. “After the radioactive iodine I went for a full body scan to see how I was doing and I lit up like a Christmas tree. The scan showed the cancer had metastasized to my lungs. Having cancer at twenty-nine was one thing, but then to learn I had metastatic cancer at thirty shook me to my core.”
A positive outcome
A few months later, Melissa did another round of radioactive iodine and the results were much more positive: the cancer in her lungs appeared to be gone. “It completely exceeded my physician’s expectations,” enthuses Melissa. Though she will have to be on hormone replacement medication for the rest of her life and under a physician’s supervision, Melissa has not required any additional treatment for the last two years and has been feeling great.
“Having thyroid cancer really changed my life. I feel more grounded and have a perspective that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. Having cancer as a young woman was very hard but it’s given me wisdom and maturity that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. I see life very differently now and try to live each moment to the fullest.”