Introduction: Hi, Deniece. Thank you so much for agreeing to do this interview for Swim Strokes today. What type of thyroid cancer do you have?
I have an atypical type of papillary thyroid cancer. How long have you been diagnosed with it?
About 9 years. How difficult was it for you to find an accurate diagnosis?
Extremely difficult! I went about 8 years seeing multiple doctors, knowing I was ill. I would explain my symptoms to my doctors. They would all say, “It’s your thyroid,” and then do a thyroid screening hormone test (TSH), which always came back normal. Then they would tell me, “It’s not your thyroid.” They then would do a T3 and a T4 and they would be normal as well. I finally went to an MD, who decided to check my antibodies for thyroglobulin. It was positive. He told me that my body was producing thyroid hormone (reason all the tests were negative), but my body was attacking my thyroid gland. I was then diagnosed with Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. I had to have ultrasounds every 6 months due to the fact both my thyroid and parathyroid were enlarging abnormally. Since the parathyroid affects calcium levels, and this could negatively impact my heart enzymes, my doctor finally decided to do a biopsy, which came back positive for abnormal cells. (You know, I think God put that little gland in my neck and made it start growing to force the doctors to perform the surgery I needed.) Later I had both glands removed and was diagnosed with Stage-4 cancer. Unfortunately, by this time, the cancer had spread to the surrounding tissues and to the lymph glands. What were your symptoms prior to diagnosis?
Extremely dry skin, hair loss, fatigue, hoarseness, foggy thinking, and severe muscle pain in both legs. The day after my first surgery my voice was clear. Almost all my other symptoms resolved as well. What types of treatment have you had?
The normal treatment is a high dose of radioactive iodine, a one-time pill that seeks out the cancer cells and eliminates them wherever they are in the body. When I was given the iodine pill, no spots lit up, as they should have if I had cancer. We found out later that my body does not absorb the iodine. Finally, a PET scan was done, and the spots lit up like a Christmas tree! Unfortunately, by this time, the cancer had spread again. They did surgery again to remove the cancer they missed the first time. I was given 33 rounds of external radiation on my throat. However, the cancer spread to my lungs. I still have nine cancerous lesions in my lungs which cannot be removed. I’m now out of options until new therapy is developed. My doctor has told me that there is a new type of therapy being developed by MD Anderson Cancer Center that is just the right treatment for my type of cancer. He told me that for the first time, he will soon be able to use the word “cure” in reference to thyroid cancer! This new treatment uses the body’s own immune system to fight the cancer. He also told me he thinks it will be out in time for me to benefit from it. Which types of treatments have been the most helpful?
Surgery has helped me the most. Explain any negative side-effects you’ve experienced from your treatment.
From the large doses of thyroid hormone, I’ve experienced chronic fatigue and heart palpitations. From the radiation, I have damaged vocal cords, damaged hair follicles, and scar tissue. I wish the doctors had told me radiation would damage the enamel on my teeth. I also wish they had told me I would lose my voice. I loved to sing, and I could have made some recordings. What types of coping skills have you found to be most beneficial in managing your illness from day to day?
Adequate rest, good nutrition, lots of prayers, and lots of friends. What types of support systems do you have in place to help you cope? I have no family here in Tulsa. My closest sister is 50 miles away. What lessons have you learned that you wish someone would have told you about when you were first diagnosed?
At times, the people you think won’t be there for you, come through for you in amazing ways. An example is my employer. He was very patient with me when I had to miss lots of work. He even gave me two huge bonuses when he found out I was hurting financially. How has your spirituality played a part in your recovery?
I believe my spiritual walk is much stronger than it has ever been. I did question God in the beginning. However, the further I walk, the more I see His hand in everything. When I finally went to the doctor who began to help me make sense out of what was going on with me, I was amazed when I walked into his office. On one wall was a picture of a person lying in bed with a doctor on one side and Jesus on the other. They both had their hands on the patient. Jesus was rubbing his forehead, and the doctor was listening to his heart through a stethoscope. When I saw that picture, I knew that God had brought me to the right doctor. I knew I would finally get my answers! You’r an author, yourself. I’ve read your book. It was very inspirational. Tell us more about the book you’ve published.
The title is Lessons from the Journey. It’s available on Amazon.com. In the book I talk about the low moments and the things that gave me hope. Every hurdle I went through, it was like God again was parting the Red Sea! He made a way for me to get through all of it. Thanks so much, Deniece. I am sure that there are many people out there who can benefit from your experience with this illness. If any of you have thyroid disease, you really should get Deniece’s book. I believe there is power in sharing our stories. Deniece’s story is one worth sharing. Her Lessons from the Journey will inspire you to never give up no matter what roadblocks obstruct your path.
Also, if you’d like to know more about the new type of cancer treatment Deniece mentioned in her interview, read about James P. Allison, Ph.D., Co-Leader of the Immunotherapy Platform at the MD Anderson Cancer Center and his groundbreaking work on immunotherapy in cancer treatment. It’s really a great story of discovery by the son of a country doctor, who grew up in Alice, Texas. James P. Allison, Ph.D., Co-Leader of the Immunotherapy Platform at the University of Texas’ MD Anderson Cancer Center and Tasuku Honjo, M.D., Ph. D. of Kyoto University in Japan were both awarded the 2018 Nobel Prize of Physiology of Medicine for their revolutionary work on using the immune system to treat cancer. Ironically, Dr. Allison was studying how t cells work in the normal immune response when he surprisingly discovered a new, highly promising and revolutionary type of cancer treatment.