Though I’m warning you, this is not the fun stuff. Of course, I’ve been over-simplifying my condition a bit (OK a lot), because it’s complicated and usually complicated medical stuff is boring. But I realize how my gaps in explanation could lead to confusion and confusion is also terribly boring.
So here are a few more overly simplified pieces to this puzzle. First, thyroid cells are unique — that means they behave/function like no other cells in the body. This is why thyroid cancer is treated in a very specific and unique way. Other traditional cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy are usually ineffective (though I still get to experience hair loss from being hypothyroid . . . so don’t look all frowny face!). Thyroid cells like to ingest (OK “ingest” isn’t really accurate, but I’m going to roll with it) iodine. Which is why it is treated with radioactive iodine (you make your cells REALLY want it, and then bait and switch them by giving them a big dose of iodine which is really a radioactive isotope, which kills them.) I personally like to imagine them as tiny fireworks exploding.
For you chemistry nerds, Iodine is a Halogen . . . wait, you don’t remember the periodic table from 10th grade science class? Seriously, I’m appalled! When I wasn’t out getting Mr. Odem bagels from Coral Bagels I was totally listening to him mumble about how we were selfish imbeciles who would never understand chemistry anyway so it was a complete waste of his time to even try to teach it to us and we could have another free period (Ha – I WAS paying attention!). Anyway, Halogens are important for understanding what may be causing the steep rise of thyroid cancer cases, which by the way is the fastest growing cancer of ALL cancers. And if you’re not sure what the other Halogens are, or how you’re being exposed to them . . . I’ll pass that job to my friend Internet, as I don’t feel particularly called to be the Erin Brokovich of thyroid cancer (but obviously if I do, I’ll be played by Sarah Michelle Gellar).
Thyroid cancer can hitch rides on lymph nodes and spread anywhere in the body, including other organs, tissue, and bones (it’s sneaky that way). I’m not sure who started the rumor that it doesn’t spread (or doesn’t spread outside the neck) but it does. I have met several people in-person that this has happened to during my few months-long journey, and I’m never surprised when I meet another (like unexpectedly today at the pharmacy!). It also isn’t “100% curable,” people do die from it, just like any other cancer and it has about a 30% re-occurrence rate. I’m not trying to be a total downer here, but just trying to clear up the misconceptions.
So that’s the thyroid. But what I have been leaving out are some less “flashy” parts which were affected by my surgery, the parathyroid glands. Most people have four (some have more), on the back of your thyroid and they’re reeeaaallly important because they help regulate calcium levels in your body (both blood and bones). Calcium is such a bad-ass element (regulating the energy levels of our muscles, nervous system, and strength of our bones) that is is the only element that has its own regulatory system in the human body (I just learned this fun fact myself!)
Unfortunately, the parathyroids are really sensitive and can be damaged during a thyroidectomy (I warned Dr. McPreppy not to look at them funny!). If they are broken or go dormant, you can experience hypoparathyroidism . . . basically you lack parathyroid hormone (or produce a reduced amount if not all glands are damaged) and this causes your blood calcium levels to decrease and your blood phosphorus levels to increase and well, then you get tingling in your lips, face, hands and feet; muscle spasms; convulsions; and could die. And since no one has invented (yet) a parathyroid replacement hormone (so there’s no “cure”), you’re kind of “up creek with no paddle” (did I just date myself?). All we know to do at this time is to ingest massive amounts of calcium in hopes of keeping your blood levels up.
So what does this have to do with me? Well, obviously my surgeon was trying to avoid potential complications (which also included damaging/destroying my vocal cords — which are a little worse for the wear, but I think should make a full recovery within the year). In some cases it’s relatively easy to protect and isolate the parathyroid glands from the thyroid, but apparently in my case they were “really stuck on there”. Which conjures up images of Dr. McPreppy flicking my thyroid around in the operating room as if trying to dislodge chewed gum from his hand (NOTE: my reenactment is purely fictitious; I’m sure he used a spatula or something).
So because my parathyroids were “disturbed” during the surgery, he was concerned that my calcium levels might fall (which is a common side-effect of my surgery in general) and I was advised to calcium dose for a while (primarily in the form of Tums…which by the way are very appealing to the 3-5 year old set and do not come in childproof containers…ggggrrr). But since calcium can interfere with the absorption of some medications, it should be avoided when taking it or anywhere within hours of taking it. So I have to take a “sneaker” dose of Tums to get my calcium fix when my other meds aren’t looking, but so far (knocking on wood, which fortunately in Oregon is like our version of grass), my calcium levels were “low” but I haven’t been symptomatic (or I’ve been too distracted by my other symptoms to notice them).
Which reminds me, I’m not sure if I mentioned or not, but my late night/early morning pill is a jolt of thyroid hormone (basically metabolism in pill form) which causes restlessness and insomnia, which probably explains why I’m up late yet again randomly typing instead of sleeping. Yes, a vital pill which is most effective when taken within an 8-hour fast and NOT at night. We have walked on the moon and patched the hole in the ozone and we can’t do better than that people . . . really?