Some things I’m happy to share all day long. Like the time I got a perm and got blasted by half of Baltimore (for reasons I won’t even go into). Or the time I had my first (and only) Brazilian wax. Or even that little post about light bladder leakage. I’m not afraid to try it and talk about it because I think a lot of good can come from talking about things.
But when it comes to my family or my health, I feel intensely private. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with talking about those things. But when it comes to sharing those types of things online, I find that people get so saturated with personal tragedy that they simply send “thoughts and prayers” via a Facebook comment and move on. Trust me, I’m guilty of it too.
I’ve had three friends scattered across the country who have dealt with or are dealing with cancer. And I’m sorry to say that I didn’t reach out like a friend should because sometimes I just don’t know what to say (besides the “thoughts and prayers” comment that checks a box).
Luckily, I’m not dealing with cancer (or I’m 99.9% sure it isn’t cancer). I’m dealing with a lump in my neck that had me terribly worried and imagining my early demise back in January. And I’ve learned so much along the way that I thought I’d share it with you from a first hand perspective.
Finding a Lump in my Throat
Back in January, I was suffering from the ailment of the moment. It had no name – simply a scratchy throat, achy feeling, and general malaise. My neck was stiff so I started massaging it while I was watching TV and then found myself feeling around my lymph nodes to see if anything was swollen. It was during this self-examination that I felt a very distinct lump in the front of my neck.
It’s been a long time since I studied human anatomy but I was a Biology major back in college and had a general idea of what should and shouldn’t be in my throat. I was pretty sure there weren’t any lymph nodes there and I was almost as sure that it was right around where my thyroid is located.
I got up, looked in the mirror, and was shocked when I saw a very visible lump in my neck. That’s when I started imagining the worst case scenario and my tearful goodbye. And then I thought that I might want to see a doctor before I make my final diagnosis.
Getting My Thyroid Checked Out
I got in quickly to see my general practitioner who checked my sore throat (the reason I gave for the appointment) and told me it was viral (isn’t it always?). And then I told her the real reason I was there was for a different part of my throat. I expected her to dismiss me but she admitted there was a lump in the vicinity of my thyroid. Off I went with an order for a thyroid ultrasound.
And then I did something stupid.
I was super busy and it didn’t seem that important to schedule the appointment and a few days later, I couldn’t feel or see the lump. Hmmm, must have been nothing, I thought to myself and didn’t worry too much about the ultrasound. Eventually, I thought maybe it would be a good idea to get it done “just in case.” I honestly figured they’d find nothing.
The report came back with results sounding like this (my radiology office has a patient portal with this information and a GIANT warning not to self-diagnose):
Left mid. 1.1 x 0.6 x 0.9 cm. 0.3 cc volume. Cystic with mural nodule. Hypoechoic. Smooth margins. Horizontal shape. Capsular blood flow. No calcifications.
Yeah, it didn’t mean much to me either. Basically, my doctor said I have a thyroid nodule that measures 1.1 cm and because it was over 1 cm, she was recommending I see an endocrinologist.
So I started digging. I re-read the report with the radiologist’s recommendation:
Category 4, indeterminate for malignancy (5-20%). Consideration should be given for fine-needle aspiration. No aspiration is performed, a short-term 6-12 month ultrasound might be considered.
Yup, I saw that ugly M word and decided to play Dr. Google. Here’s what I found out about the thyroid and the possibility of cancer:
- A thyroid nodule is a growth on the thyroid gland that is usually solid or fluid-filled
- Thyroid nodules are three times more common in women than in men
- 30% of 30-year-old women will have a thyroid nodule.
- One in 40 young men have a thyroid nodule.
- More than 95% of all thyroid nodules are benign.
- Most women will develop a thyroid nodule by the time they are 50 years old.
Basically, if you’re a person of a certain age, you probably have a nodule on your thyroid and don’t even know it. And if you have a nodule, chances are VERY high that it is non-cancerous. And even if it was cancerous, it usually does not affect your thyroid function at all and is very treatable.
Unfortunately for me, I had a referral with an endocrinologist who decided that the size and consistency should probably warrant a biopsy but he left that decision up to me. The conversation went something like this:
Doc: You might want to go ahead and have a biopsy or you can just wait and have another ultrasounds in 4 to 6 months.
Me: But what if it’s the worst case scenario and I wait 4 months to find out it is cancer?
Doc: It’s a very slow-growing cancer and is very treatable.
Me: So why wouldn’t I have the biopsy?
Doc: Well, some people have issues with getting needles in their neck.
Me: I can’t say I’m thrilled with the idea. What would you do if it was YOUR thyroid?
That last question is always a conversation killer. Doctors won’t ever make the decision for you. But his body language told me to go ahead and get it done if simply for peace of mind.
Braving a Thyroid Biopsy
A thyroid biopsy is an outpatient procedure that involves a fine needle aspiration of the nodule. In other words, someone’s gonna stick a needle in your neck and collect some cells. And if it sounds scary, it was. Or at least the anticipation of it was.
The endocrinologist set me up with an appointment at the local hospital where a radiologist would perform the procedure. It made sense because they need to perform an ultrasound again to see exactly where to stick the needle.
When I was called back for the prep work, the woman (nurse/assistant/technician) was so nice and sensed my anxiety right away. I told her I was worried about the pain and I was worried about the doctor’s bedside manner. I’ve had a few traumatic experiences with medical professionals so this was important to me. I especially worried because I don’t imagine radiologists get a lot of one on one time with patients.
Here’s how the thyroid biopsy actually went down:
- I calmed down and laid on the table while the tech did the initial ultrasound to locate the nodule.
- The doctor came in and discussed the entire procedure and (SURPRISE!) he was super friendly with a great sense of humor.
- They cleaned the area of my neck where they would be doing the procedure and injected me with lidocaine to numb the area.
- Once numb, the doctor used the ultrasound wand to find the nodule and inserted the needle twice to take two tissue samples.
- The samples were handed off to a pathology technician who was in the room with a microscope. She took a quick examination of the sample to make sure the doctor got cells and not just fluid.
- The doctor told me I got off easy with only two needles and that the samples looked to be cystic.
Everything was cleaned up and I thanked him profusely for his bedside manner. I don’t think medical professionals realize how important that is to the patient experience. I finished up and went on my way where I now wait for the results.
Why I’m Sharing My Experience
If you’re like me, you like to do your research before showing up for anything. And while I could find plenty of stats for the likelihood of thyroid cancer, I couldn’t find much about the actual thyroid biopsy experience except those forums. You know, the forums where people relay how incredibly horrible their experience was.
It was manageable. Scary, but manageable. And the radiologist confessed that this procedure wasn’t the best. Most people that have a thyroid ultrasound will find a nodule. And most people that have a nodule will have a thyroid biopsy. And most thyroid biopsies will come back with benign results. His advice was simply to avoid a thyroid ultrasound if you don’t really need one.
I’m not a doctor and I would never make a recommendation to ignore a troublesome condition. But if you do find yourself in my situation, you now, hopefully, know what to expect.