Heather-Anne Cunningham

Heather_Ann_Cunningham - profileSadly, Heather Ann has passed away.

Age at Diagnosis: 24

Current Age (at time of profile): 24

Hometown

White Rock, BC

How did you find out you were sick? What events led to the diagnosis?

Like most young cancer patients my symptoms went ignored for many years before any real concern was shown. It all started when I was about 20. One night after a big fight with my boyfriend I had a very bad panic attack. My mom took me to the emergency room just to be on the safe side. The emergency room doctor felt my neck and told me that my thyroid was swollen and I should go have it tested. She said it was a simple blood test and would determine if my thyroid was under active. Even though there was no mention of it, I had a horrible gut feeling that it was cancer.

I saw my family doctor who reluctantly sent me for the blood work. He assured me nothing was wrong with my thyroid. When I went for the results of the test he very casually told me that everything was fine and that my mom was a nutcase who worried too much about my health I felt relieved, but still couldn’t shake the feeling that something was wrong.

I would often lay in bed at night terrified that I had cancer. I became very good at putting it out of my mind. For the next 4 years my energy levels continued to drop and I developed some breathing issues. I would often feel breathless after climbing stairs. My doctor always blew it off saying I was fine and that I could go for a chest X-ray if I felt like it. Obviously, I didn’t feel like it, so I never went.

On October 23rd, 2006 everything changed, I couldn’t ignore things anymore. I woke up in the middle of the night COVERED in sweat. I was literally soaked, and I was so nauseous I could hardly stand. I knew something was very, very wrong. In the morning I went straight to my computer and Googled night sweats. My heart sank when I read the words Night sweats are often a symptom of certain cancers. At that point I just knew I had cancer and I knew I had to do something about it.

I saw a doctor at the walk in clinic and he pretty much freaked out when he touched my neck. He said he had never felt lymph nodes that swollen before. He also mentioned that my thyroid was very enlarged. He looked grim as he told me to go directly to the hospital for blood work and a chest X-ray. Good luck Heather he said to me as I left the clinic.

My dad met me at the hospital and I cried hysterically as I waited for the X-ray. After the first picture the technician came out of the little room with a strange look on his face and asked me if I was having trouble breathing. I said no and asked him why he would ask me that. He shook his head and told me to go wait outside while he checked something with the radiologist. When he returned he had a forced smile on his face and told me to go make an appointment for an ultrasound of my neck. I made the appointment for 3 weeks later and went home.

The next morning the hospital called and said that my ultrasound appointment had been rescheduled for that afternoon, and that I had been scheduled to see my family doctor right after. As the ultrasound was performed, the technician went from making polite chit-chat to being totally silent and shifting positions in her chair. She kept clicking and measuring these huge black spots in my neck. I asked her what they were and she very quickly replied Lymph nodes. I can’t tell you anything. You have to see your doctor. After the ultrasound she told us to wait in the room while she checkedĀ  something with the radiologist. She was gone for 20 minutes. When she finally returned she had the same forced smile that the X-ray technician had had the day before. By this point I was getting very scared and so were my parents.

I knew from the second my family doctor walked into the room later that afternoon that the news was not good. Ever since I had been a little girl he had always greeted me the same way Ms Cunningham! he would always exclaim with a smile on his face. That day he just gently said How are you feeling Heather? Is it cancer? was what I blurted out as my reply. I was expecting him to laugh and say of course not but instead he said, It could be Heather. We are very concerned.

He proceeded to tell me that there were multiple tumors in my neck and on my thyroid and that my chest X-ray had showed abnormalities I asked him if they could be benign tumors like one I had before, but he said these tumors did not look benign. I asked him what kind of cancer he thought it was, It could be thyroid cancer, but lets hope its Lymphoma because at least that is treatable he said, avoiding eye contact with me. (I later found out that he had thought it was a very rare form of thyroid cancer called Anaplastic thyroid cancer, which is totally untreatable and most patients are dead within a year).

The next morning I had a FNA (fine needle aspiration, a type of biopsy) and it was determined that I had Papillary Thyroid cancer. When I returned to my family doctor to get the results he told me that he had good news and bad news. The bad news was that I had cancer, but the good news was that papillary thyroid cancer is one of the most treatable types of cancer. The same doctor who had told me 4 years earlier that nothing was wrong with my thyroid was now telling me that I had thyroid cancer that had likely spread into my lungs. A procedure the following week would confirm that the cancer had in fact spread into my lungs. I met with an ear, nose and throat surgeon who told me that the cancer had likely been in my body for at least 5 years. My oncologist later told me that the cancer had been there for more like 10 years, possibly longer.

What year was it? What was your age at the time?

It was 2006. I was 24.

At what level of education were you at diagnosis?

Two years of college for accounting.

Do you work? I was an accountant before my diagnosis.

What was your diagnosis?

Advanced Papillary Thyroid Cancer with extensive metastasis to the lungs.

What are your career goals?

Short Term: I am hoping to go back to work part time in the next month or so. Long term: Start my own bookkeeping/accounting company so I have lots of time for volunteer work and travel.

What were your first thoughts when diagnosed?

I am going to die. Every doctor I saw told me that if they had to pick a cancer to have they would chose thyroid cancer because it is so treatable and the survival rate is almost 100% even with advanced cases like mine. I didn’t care. I was still convinced I was going to die. I didn’t believe their prognosis.

How did your family react?

Everyone was shocked. My mom actually asked the doctor if he was joking. There were a lot of tears and fear. I’m pretty sure my parents both thought I was going to die. My younger brother was very quiet about it.

How did your friends react?

Three of my close girlfriends were wonderful. They came over right after I told them the news and they cried with me and brought me books about cancer and flowers. The rest of my friends abandoned me. They didn’t know how to react so they just didn’t call or visit.

What did your treatment consist of?

Medical Side: I was told that my treatment would likely consist of surgery to remove the thyroid and tumors in my neck, and that I would also need multiple doses of Radioactive Iodine to kill the cancer in my lungs. I had the surgery and 80% of the cancer was removed. They were unable to remove all of it due to tumors that had wrapped themselves around my vocal chords. After the surgery I was told I would need external beam radiation to kill this left over cancer.

Three months after the surgery I drank 200 millicurries of Radioactive Iodine. I will be on Synthroid (thyroid hormone replacement) for the rest of my life. This drug replaces the thyroid, and also prevents the cancer from returning.

After my diagnosis I started having very bad panic attacks so I started taking Ativan. I still take it on a daily basis. I am no longer having anxiety issues, but without the Ativan I get very grumpy and nauseous. I hope to one day not be dependant on it.

Side effects from surgery were very mild. My neck was sore for a few weeks and I felt tired. I was placed on thyroid replacement hormone (Synthroid) about a week after surgery and stayed on it for about a month until I had to go off it in order to prepare for my Radioactive Iodine treatment. I got very sick from the treatment and didn’t get out of bed for about three weeks. I was very nauseous and depressed.

Not having a thyroid causes many non- cancer related issues. I have developed very dry sensitive skin and had to be placed on prednisone to clear up a severe case of contact dermatitis. I have lost about 35lbs since my thyroid was removed which is the opposite of what most people experience. I had had some issues with hair loss, but nothing major. Most of these issues will be corrected once my thyroid medication is adjusted to the right level. This can take up to a year. My energy is still very low, but is improving everyday.

Non-Medical Side: Emotionally, its been a roller coaster. I’ve experienced severe depression and anxiety as well as extreme sadness and fear. I still cry every day.

In which hospital(s) were you treated?

Vancouver General Hospital and Surrey Memorial Hospital.

What is your current medical status?

My treatment worked much better then the doctors expected. The cancer in my neck and lungs absorbed the Radioactive Iodine very well and it has been shrinking rapidly. The residual cancer in my neck shrunk from 10cms to 3cms in just one month. I no longer need to have the external beam radiation treatment and its possible I will not need any further doses of Radioactive Iodine either.

I will be closely monitored for the rest of my life, because there is a high rate of reoccurrence, but I have been assured that this will not affect my life span and I am on way to a full recovery!

How is life different for you now post diagnosis (physically, emotionally, socially, spiritually)?

I believe that cancer was the greatest gift I have ever been given. It has shown me what a strong person I am. I feel like as a cancer survivor I am a member of a very special club. It is not a club I ever expected to be a part of, but now that I am a member I am damn proud. I think cancer survivors are the most powerful, wonderful people on the planet.

Physically, I know I have struggles ahead of me because life without a thyroid is not easy, but I kicked cancer’s ass in less then 5 months so there really isn’t anything I can’t handle now.

What is/was the toughest part of your challenge?

Not having a thyroid means that my energy levels are not that of a normal 24 year old woman. I wake up with a ton of energy and am ready for bed at about 2pm. I feel spaced out and weird a lot of the time as well. Its hard to accept that part of my body is missing and that I will have to take medicine every day of my life to replace it, but it’s a small price to pay to have my life.

What is/was the best part of your challenge?

I met the most amazing and wonderful guy about 3 months into my journey. His dad had thyroid cancer so he understands what I am going through and is very patient and understanding. I know I never would have met him if it were not for cancer.

What really motivated you to keep going while you were sick?

I joined a thyroid cancer support group called Thryvors, and the encouragement and support from the women in that group is really what got me through things. Also, knowing that thyroid cancer is rarely fatal was a big thing for me. I never once had a doctor give me any reason to think I wasn’t going to be ok, I had my doubts but when you have numerous doctors all telling you the same thing, eventually you start to have faith in them.

What are your thoughts and feelings about your illness now? How have they changed since before your diagnosis?

Before my diagnosis, I thought everyone who got cancer died from it. I was totally ignorant to the disease. I didn’t know that there are hundreds of different types of cancers and that cancer is just a general term used to describe a mutation of cells. I now understand that cancer is not a death sentence and that people can have cancer and still go on to live a completely normal life.

What are some (if there are any you know of) preventative measures that people can take to lower their risk of having an experience like yours?

I now tell everyone that if something feels wrong in your body go to the doctor, and if you don’t get the answers you want go to another doctor. If my doctor had paid more attention to my symptoms I likely would have been diagnosed YEARS ago. It wouldn’t have changed my outcome, but I am lucky. Most cancers are not so easily treated in advanced stages. For young adults it’s especially important to have regular check ups with a GOOD doctor. We are so overlooked when it comes to cancer. I would also recommend to young adults to try and find a GP who is young. I have found that older doctors are very set in their ways and sometimes not willing to go the extra distance for their patients.

Did you attend any support groups during your challenge?

I contacted The Cancer Connection as soon as I was diagnosed. I also joined an online thyroid cancer support group, and another online community called Planet Cancer.

The woman that the cancer connection put me in touch with is amazing. She had a very similar case to mine and she has always been able to put my mind at ease when I’m feeling scared. The online thyroid cancer support group has been amazing for me. I have only met one member in person and it was a wonderful experience. It’s so important to share experiences with other people who have been through it. It’s so therapeutic.

How are you connected with Young Adult Cancer?

I read about Young Adult Cancer in the Georgia Straight Newspaper.

I think it is so important for young cancer patients to have places and people to turn to who have been through it. It’s a very lonely disease and it is impossible to relate to someone in their 50s who has cancer.