I sat in that cold, white exam room on the table with the crinkly sterile paper. I was wondering, just as thousands of my own patients had before, what my test results had found. I held my husband’s hand and tried to be my usual upbeat self, but my thoughts were racing – “I’ll have to have surgery for sure;” “I just had a baby, how can I handle this?” and “I can’t have cancer.”
But the doctor in me – knew the truth.
My own doctor walked in and just as I’ve seen my patients do time and time again – I searched his face and stared into his eyes, trying to figure out what those test results would reveal. What he had to tell me could ultimately change my life forever. He didn’t beat around the bush.
“Cynara, its papillary carcinoma,” he said.
And there it was – cancer got the cancer doctor. I have papillary thyroid cancer. Ironic, isn’t it?
They say doctors make the worst patients, and I can definitely attest to that. So I’m going to come clean -- the only reason I saw a doctor last year was because I was pregnant. I know, I know – I’m not following my own advice at all.
Maybe if I had gone to the doctor for a regular checkup – I would have been diagnosed sooner.
Just six weeks ago, I gave birth to a gorgeous little girl; Olivia. But like any new mom, self neglect got the better of me while I adjusted to the joys of motherhood, so I went to the hair salon to get primped just before Christmas. As I was sitting in the chair – I looked at myself in the mirror and noticed a lump when I swallowed. I touched it and felt a small nodule. I could tell it was on my thyroid gland because when I swallowed it moved up and down.
The thyroid gland is found in front of the windpipe and just below the voice box. It helps to control the way your body uses energy by regulating metabolism and the growth rate and function of many other systems in the body.
When I came home from the salon, I joked around with my husband, who is also a surgeon, because as a doctor, when you take your board exams for surgery, one of the classic scenarios you have to diagnose and provide a workup for is a “non-tender, asymptomatic, 4-centimeter mass in the neck.” And guess what: it’s usually cancer. So I knew that this was something that I needed to address – especially because it was in my thyroid.
I went to the doctor to get an ultrasound. This test is really simple and painless. A technician put clear gel on my neck to make it easier for the instruments to see my thyroid clearly. Then a transducer, which looks like a wand, is passed over the area where I felt the lump. It took about 30 minutes to take pictures of my thyroid to send off to the doctor.
After seeing the results, he determined I needed a needle biopsy to find out if the nodule was cancerous. I do needle biopsies on my breast cancer patients quite often because they give doctors a much clearer view of what’s going on with the patient. A small sample of tissue is removed from the suspicious lump with a tiny needle – which doctors say can sometimes be uncomfortable. But I will tell you from firsthand experience – it's more than just a pinch! The specimen is then looked at under a microscope to determine if it’s cancerous. When you have thyroid cancer – abnormal cells grow in the gland.
According to the American Cancer Society’s website, there were 44,670 new cases of thyroid cancer diagnosed in 2010. The kind I have, papillary thyroid cancer is the most common form of the disease and usually afflicts more women than men. It can be detected at any time in your life, but most likely before the age of 45.
The good news is, the survival rate for this kind of thyroid cancer is 80 to 90 percent. So the odds are in my favor.
Thyroid cancer isn’t usually found until a lump forms because most people ignore the other symptoms, which include: pain in your ears, trouble swallowing, trouble breathing, hoarseness and a frequent cough. I never had any of these symptoms, just the lump.
There’s nothing that I could have done to prevent this from happening to me. You can’t stop thyroid cancer from developing. A friend of mine who has breast cancer once told me that she never thought “why me?” when she was diagnosed, but instead “why not me?” I couldn’t have said it better myself. Cancer can happen to anyone.
We don’t know the exact cause of thyroid cancer, but like with other cancers – your DNA is responsible in some way. People who are exposed to increased amounts of radiation have a greater chance of getting thyroid cancer. Medullary thyroid cancer is very rare but it runs in families and a genetic test can determine if you are at risk for getting it.
So, what’s next? Treatment. As soon as my doctor said the words every patient dreads, “its cancer,” my husband and I sprang into action. I knew I’d need surgery to remove the thyroid, and because of where it’s located, it is a very delicate procedure. If done incorrectly – the patient’s voice could be damaged. At least my operating hands aren’t in danger – but I could kiss my TV journalism career goodbye if that were to happen.
I scheduled my surgery at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City with the extremely accomplished and distinguished Dr. Mark Urken. He’s the chief of the division of Head and Neck Surgical Oncology, and takes every precaution to avoid complications. At 5:30 a.m. on Thursday, January, 6, I left my newborn baby at home and was admitted into the hospital – not as Dr. Cynara Coomer, chief of breast surgery at Staten Island University Hospital – but as Cynara Coomer, cancer patient.
The surgery to remove my thyroid was a success and Dr. Urken expects a full recovery. I will be resting at home with my family and may have to be treated with radioactive iodine in the next few weeks to destroy the remaining thyroid tissue.
I decided to go public with my story because it's important to raise awareness about this often overlooked cancer. There is no walk to bring attention to it and no one wears a ribbon to support it. Well not yet at least.
I look forward to returning to my daily routine of being a mom, caring for cancer patients and appearing on Fox News. In the meantime, feel free to send me your questions at firstname.lastname@example.org, as I'd like to have an open discussion about my experience.
Contributing: FoxNews.com's Paula Rizzo
Dr. Cynara Coomer is the Chief of Breast Surgery & Director of The Comprehensive Breast Center at Staten Island University Hospital. She is also an assistant clinical professor of surgery specializing in breast health and breast cancer surgery at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City. She is a FOX News Health contributor providing medical expertise on a variety of topics in cancer research with a focus on women’s health, breast diseases and tips for healthy breasts at any age. Follow Dr. Coomer on Facebook and Twitter. Visit her website:www.cynaracoomermd.com