She thought she had tonsillitis
By Catriona Harvey-Jenner
This time of year, coughs, colds and sore throats are common; it’s freezing outside and germs spread more easily. But serving as a reminder it’s always important to get persistent symptoms checked at the doctors – even if you think it’s something minor – one woman has shared her story of how a sore throat turned out to be a rare form of cancer.
Kristin Freeze from Mississippi in the States explained to Women’s Health how she first noticed something was wrong six months into her pregnancy. She felt a lump on the side of her neck, but assumed it was a swollen gland – something she’d previously experienced before – so she disregarded it as nothing.
A few weeks after giving birth to her son, however, Kristin developed a sore throat that still hadn’t budged after two weeks. Believing she must have tonsillitis, which wasn’t ideal with a newborn baby to look after, she asked her husband to take her to the doctor to get some antibiotics.
“Two minutes into the examination, our family practitioner saw the lump and felt it. ‘That’s not good,’ he said. I was a little taken aback,” Kristin told Women’s Health.
The new mother was sent for a scan, and four days later she received a diagnosis of thyroid cancer, the gland in the neck that releases hormones and controls metabolism. She was shocked and devastated.
“I didn’t even know a person could have thyroid cancer. I just heard “cancer,” and I thought I was going to die,” she said. “I was terrified — I had a new baby and he needed me.”
Following Kristin’s initial diagnosis, she underwent surgery which revealed she had stage 4 medullary thyroid cancer. Not only the rarest kind of thyroid cancer, it’s also the most difficult to detect, meaning it’s more likely to spread to the lymph nodes, the lungs and liver.
Her tumour was the size of a baseball, and the cancer had spread to her lymph nodes as well as her vocal cord. Doctors estimated she’d had the cancer for five years.
Kristin was kept in intensive care for 10 days after her operation, and couldn’t talk louder than a whisper thanks to her vocal cord being paralysed during surgery, but she’s since re-gained the ability to speak. Because the type of cancer she has doesn’t respond very well to chemotherapy, consultants decided the best form of treatment for Kristin going forward would simply be to monitor the existing cancer that couldn’t be removed by surgery.
Every six months, she has a full-body CT scan which flags any newly-growing tumours, and while some have been detected, for the time being – three-and-a-half-years later – she’s been told everything is stable. “As long as these tumours aren’t growing, I take that as good news,” Kristin told Women’s Health.
The thyroid gland is based in your neck.
The cancer still left in her body will eventually start to spread, and it’s something Kristin and her family are aware of. But by the time that happens, new treatments may have been introduced that could increase her chances of survival.
And for that reason, she’s remaining optimistic. There’s not really much else she can do. “I don’t sit around throwing myself a pity party,” Kristin said. “I did feel sorry for myself at first, of course—I wondered why this had happened to me when I was just starting the family I’d wanted for so long. But I quickly realised you can’t do that and that’s not who I want to be. Cancer is something that happens.”