Wife, mother, and entrepreneur Anita Hubbard was diagnosed with papillary thyroid cancer several years ago on Valentine’s Day. Anita turned her own challenges into an advocacy mission to help other thyroid cancer survivors by founding the Love Your Thyroid Foundation, and raising funds for thyroid cancer support and research.
We had an opportunity by email interview to learn more from Anita about her own experience with thyroid cancer, and her goals for the Love Your Thyroid Foundation.
HealthCentral (HC): Can you share what it was like to be diagnosed with thyroid cancer, on Valentine's Day, no less?
Anita: The peculiar part of my initial reaction to being diagnosed with stage II papillary thyroid cancer — and even through the first round of treatments I received — is that I treated it all as fairly inconsequential. I had been told by medical professionals (and believed) that this was the “good cancer” to get. I had convinced myself that this would be easy to resolve and move on from, and I was focused on doing just that.
As with a lot of papillary thyroid cancer diagnoses, I was given a very positive prognosis of survival: nearly 98 percent. I was told a simple removal of my thyroid, a possible low dose of radioactive iodine, and a small daily pill would rid me of this nuisance and I could go back to normal.
About a month prior to receiving my diagnosis, I went to see an ENT (ear nose and throat specialist) about a recurring sinus infection. During this appointment, the doctor palpitated my neck and discovered a large, visible nodule on my left thyroid lobe. Shortly thereafter, I underwent a few tests of the nodule, and I was so confident that this was much ado about nothing, I convinced my husband and parents that it was entirely unreasonable to accompany me to my appointment to review the results on Valentine’s Day in 2013.
I followed the recommended treatment to have a full thyroidectomy. What was supposed to have originally been an outpatient procedure actually took much longer in the operating room and resulted in me having to stay in the hospital for two nights, due to complications with my calcium levels being too low.
The cancer had not only infected my left thyroid lobe, but also my right thyroid lobe and many of the surrounding lymph nodes in my neck. I received a dose of radioactive iodine (RAI) that forced me to be away from my three-year-old daughter for nearly a week.
About two years later, shortly after I gave birth to my second child, my doctor noticed a firm, enlarged lymph node on the left side of my neck. The cancer was clearly still in my body, so I underwent a radical left neck dissection to remove the infected lymph nodes. The recovery from this surgery was far more difficult than my first surgery, causing severe pain and numbness. I also had drains in my neck that prevented me from being able to fulfill my maternal need to hold and care for my newborn son.
It wasn’t until this point that I started to realize how life-changing my cancer diagnosis was going to be; how not “good” thyroid cancer is. I was being robbed, again, of time with my children, of living a normal life and left to contend with finding a new normal, which I was wholly unprepared to do.
I am now in a “wait and see” treatment mode, being monitored for a couple of lymph nodes in my neck and several lesions on my lungs.
HC: How is life after thyroidectomy?
Anita: I was really unprepared and shocked by the debilitating process of trying to rebalance my thyroid hormones with thyroid hormone replacement medication. For eight excruciating months after my thyroidectomy in 2013, I existed in a foggy exhaustion while trying to manage my young family and a full-time job with frequent 10-hour work days. It was very difficult to go from being very active and fast-paced, to feeling like I couldn’t move or think properly on a daily basis.
Fortunately, we did finally find the right balance, which is a combination of both T4 and T3 medications. I currently take 137 mcg of Synthroid and 5 mcg of Cytomel once daily. I am very lucky that this combination has worked for me for quite some time now.
I have learned that it is most important that I take my medication at the same time each day and I’m diligent about not eating for at least an hour after I have taken the medication. If I deviate from this then I feel much more tired throughout the day.
HC: How do you balance life as a wife and mother, entrepreneur, thyroid cancer survivor, and thyroid cancer advocate?
Anita: Ah, the elusive life balance! I went through a period of time where I profoundly struggled with maintaining a career as an executive of a software development company and being a mother to two young children, all while trying to beat and recover from persistent metastatic thyroid cancer. Even with the unconditional support from my husband and family, this was just hard. So, I don’t think there is a way to balance it all, or if there is, I certainly haven’t mastered it!
What I have learned through all of this, though, is that I felt most out of balance when I wasn’t spending enough time and priority on the things that are really meaningful to me. Receiving a cancer diagnosis — and enduring the resulting treatments, emotions, and acceptance that this is a chronic disease I have to manage — grounded me in a very essential way. It forced me to make the hard but right decision to redirect my time and attention from my career to raising my young family, taking care of my health, and using my expertise to establish and run my non-profit in hopes to make a difference in the world of thyroid cancer.
I try to bring balance to my days by creating a manageable schedule of events for the family and writing everything down! I am a sucker for a well-organized list, and I’ve had a long-standing love affair with spreadsheets! In full disclosure, there are some days I feel so accomplished managing the family and my non-profit and other days I feel like chaos unleashed on us and nothing was accomplished! But this is the reality of my life, and I feel a peaceful joy knowing I’m focused on the right priorities in my life right now!
HC: How did you decide to create the Love Your Thyroid Foundation, and how did you decide to donate funds you raised to the Thyroid Cancer Survivor’s Association (ThyCa)?
Anita: It wasn’t until after I finished my second round of treatments that I finally had time to process what I had just experienced. I was suddenly dealing with many uncomfortable emotions that I originally dodged and avoided during my treatments, both in 2013 and in 2015, because I was so focused on just surviving. Creating the Love Your Thyroid Foundation was initially a way of coping and assigning a purpose to these emotions and this unsettling event in my life. The irony of being diagnosed on Valentine’s Day was not lost on me, so I have carried the Valentine’s theme throughout the organization and fundraising events.
In this first year of managing my non-profit, I have learned that my story is not unique. In fact, the incidence of thyroid cancer diagnosis is rapidly increasing, yet it remains a massively misunderstood disease and egregiously underfunded in research. Now my purpose has become keenly fixated on creating a disruptive change in our perception and management of thyroid cancer.
I first came across the Thyroid Cancer Survivors’ Association (ThyCa) through a Google search about thyroid cancer when I was first diagnosed. I heavily utilized the information on ThyCa’s website to help guide me through my journey. I recently attended ThyCa’s 20th Annual International Thyroid Cancer Survivors’ Conference and I was blown away by not only the vast availability of resources and access to physicians and medical experts, but also the camaraderie of the survivors and caregivers. ThyCa is not only an important patient advocacy organization, but also awards grants to physician researchers all over the world. I am honored to be able to support them through my non-profit organization.
HC: Love Your Thyroid Foundation's mission is a "world without thyroid cancer." What sorts of things do you feel will help advance your mission?
Anita: First and foremost, we have to stop calling it a good cancer! Cancer is defined, in short, as a growth that destructively spreads through invasion. How, in any form, can this be good? The more we discredit this notion … the more we can raise awareness and education about this disease and follow that with funding for critical research and clinical trials.
Secondly, we have to make thyroid cancer commonly known. Thyroid cancer is one of the most rapidly increasing cancers diagnosed in the United States, and one of the few cancers where the mortality rate has not decreased. These statistics are impactful. The understanding of how to detect and treat thyroid cancer has to become part of our standard conversation, just as it has with other cancer types.
Lastly, we have to have hope. The topic of thyroid cancer, is certainly depressing, but we have to remain deeply hopeful that we will continue to make progress in the understanding and treatment of this disease. No amount of effort or dollars raised is futile as this all contributes to progress.