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Lessons learned fighting thyroid cancer

  • Beth Horslev Gilbert was diagnosed with and treated for thyroid cancer
  • She opens up about her painful journey and why, in the end, it benefited her
Lessons learned fighting thyroid cancer
Beth Gilbert

'Pink Ribbon Girls' simplify your cancer fight

'Pink Ribbon Girls' simplify your cancer fight

Editor’s note: Beth Horslev Gilbert is an Atlanta-based freelance writer and an assistant archivist at the Fox Theater. After Brooke Burke, former winner and now co-host of “Dancing with the Stars,” announced she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, Gilbert looks back at her own experience with the disease and shares the lessons she’s learned from it.

Being diagnosed with thyroid cancer at age 35 was both scary and a relief. Scary because even though I was told it was the most “treatable form of cancer,” people can still die from it -- a relief because it helped explain some of the symptoms I’d been having, like crazy mood swings and the urge to pummel a pillow.

It took nearly two years, two doses of radioactive iodine, and six weeks of radiation to get the “all clear.” While the journey was physically and mentally exhausting, I became a stronger person because of it and learned some important lessons along the way.

It was my 3-year-old daughter’s rather astute pediatrician who found the lump in my neck in 2003. Obviously rattled, she told me to go see a doctor immediately. Since I was seven months pregnant at the time, I went to my OB/GYN who referred me to an endocrinologist. That doctor didn’t seem half as concerned about the lump and suggested waiting until after my baby was born to have it biopsied. 

Lesson No. 1: You are your best advocate
God bless ‘em, but doctors are not infallible. If something doesn’t feel right, speak up. If you find a lump, get it biopsied as soon as possible. And don’t see just any endocrinologist (remember, they handle issues from diabetes to weight loss) -- find one who is a thyroid cancer specialist.

Obviously, the belated biopsy was positive for cancer and with speed I underwent a complete thyroidectomy, meaning my entire thyroid was removed. The surgeon said my thyroid had become a tar-like substance that had adhered to nearby muscle tissue. Because of that, he suggested I undergo both radioactive iodine (traditional in such cases) and radiation treatments.

After I swallowed the radioactive iodine pill, I was hospitalized in seclusion. I drank a ton of liquid to flush my system, and after three days and two nights, my radiation levels were low enough to be released. However, I still couldn’t have contact with my children for several days.

Lesson No. 2: Ask for help
Asking for help is one of the toughest lessons I learned. But if it were not for both sets of grandparents, a neighborhood meal train and the cards and calls from friends, getting through that difficult time would have been nearly impossible.

Radiation to my thyroid bed was next. I lost fists full of hair, mostly at the back of my neck, where the radiation had penetrated through, and I developed an infection that caused me to lose my voice for several days. A year later, tests showed my thyroid cancer was still active, so I took a second dose of radioactive iodine. Thankfully, that treatment worked.

Sometimes, though, treatments cause their own problems, and during a routine mammogram two years ago, calcifications were detected in my breasts. As it turns out, women treated with radioactive iodine are at a greater risk for developing breast cancer. Despite a painful core biopsy, my tests were negative.

Lesson No. 3: Cancer is a neverending story
Even though I’ve been cancer-free for seven years, the fear of cancer returning is never far away. While I don’t dwell on the possibility, I do use it to motivate me to eat right and exercise, so that if there is a next time, I have a better chance of beating cancer, again.

Throughout my ordeal, I kept asking myself “Why do I have cancer?” and “Why now?” I re-evaluated my career and made a conscious decision to stay home with my children. I also came to the conclusion that God was not punishing me with cancer but using it to get back into my life. 

Lesson No. 4: Re-evaluate your life
Ask yourself, “Why do I have cancer now?” The answers might just surprise you.

Today, I am a better person emotionally and spiritually, and in some regards, I have cancer to thank for that. 

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