Shalimar Manuel

Shalimar_Manuel - profileAge at Diagnosis: 19 & 23

Current Age (at time of profile): 27

Hometown

Fox Point, NS

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

When I was 18, I started feeling unwell: extreme fatigue, depression, digestion problems, menstrual irregularities, etc. I saw several specialists, but nothing was diagnosed. Eventually I developed a lump in my neck which turned out to be a goiter (enlarged thyroid gland) and was diagnosed with hypothyroidism. A year later, the goiter had grown, a biopsy was done, and I was diagnosed with papillary carcinoma

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

My first diagnosis was in 1999 when I was 19; I had a recurrence in 2003 when I was 23.

At what level of education were you at diagnosis?

Undergraduate.

Do you work? Full time graduate student.

What was your diagnosis?

Thyroid cancer — papillary carcinoma.

What are your career goals?

Health Promotion Consultant.

What were your first thoughts when diagnosed?

I was shocked because there’s no history of cancer in my family, and I was so young. But I was also relieved because there was finally an explanation for two years of symptoms.

How did your family react?

I called my mother and she started crying immediately and couldn’t finish the conversation. My father and sister were also very upset. During my initial surgery, my father had a seizure due to a combination of stress and an underlying health condition and had to be admitted to the hospital as well.

How did your friends react?

My friends were all pretty shocked. They were a great source of support throughout the entire treatment and recovery process.

What did your treatment consist of?

Medical Side: a) Surgery — total thyroidectomy; three days in the hospital. b) Radioactive iodine treatment — in isolation for two days.

Non-Medical Side: I actually felt stronger emotionally than I had in two years because I had a concrete problem with a concrete solution to work with. I was pretty tired from having no thyroid hormone for an extended period of time, but after I started taking hormone replacement I felt great.

I sort of felt empowered after the first experience. I knew it had made me a stronger person. However, the recurrence really took the wind out of my sails. I felt really discouraged and betrayed by my body. I had a higher dose of radiation the second time, which made me really ill, and it took me a full year to get my thyroid hormone levels balanced afterwards.

In which hospital(s) were you treated?

VG Hospital in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

What is your current medical status?

Cancer free! I will be monitored for life, but follow-up testing is much less regimented now.

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

I am extremely focused on leading a healthy lifestyle. I follow a very healthy diet, exercise regularly, and take supplements that have high anti-oxidant properties; I practice yoga and meditation regularly; and I do my best to avoid stressful situations.

At times, I feel like a hypochondriac because I go to the doctor when the slightest thing is off balance. I never thought I’d get cancer, but I did, so now anything is possible in my mind. The doctors told me for years leading up to the initial diagnosis that nothing was wrong and that it was all in my head, so sometimes I have a hard time trusting them now.

I feel grateful for having such an intense experience at an early age because I rarely take people/things for granted now. I also do not put off ’til tomorrow, what I can do today.

When new friendships or romantic relationships are developing, I ask myself, “Would this person stick around if I got sick again?” and if the answer is no, I move on. I am very sensitive towards the needs of my friends and family when they are sick and am willing to make huge sacrifices to support them through tough times.

Spirituality has always been important to me, but intensified after the cancer diagnosis because I needed to somehow answer the “why me?” question that stubbornly floated around in my head. Sorting through my ideas of a higher power/purpose helped me to accept my situation and view it as an opportunity for growth and refinement rather than a random victimizing event. I also chose to go back to school and do my Masters in thyroid cancer research because I really want to help others that are going through a similar situation.

What is/was the toughest part of your challenge?

Feeling like I was going crazy after two years of feeling miserable and having every doctor tell me there was nothing wrong. Also, it took me a long time to get my hormone levels balanced and I really struggled with the lack of control I had over my body and emotions during those periods of imbalance. It took me a long time to find an endocrinologist (hormone specialist) who treated me as a whole person rather than a blood test value, and until then I felt a lot of frustration and despair.

What is/was the best part of your challenge?

It gave me a focus for my educational/career pursuits. I was already working on my undergraduate in Health Promotion when I first got sick, but I wasn’t sure what area I would focus in. After my experience with thyroid cancer, I realized there weren’t a lot of resources for young adults with cancer and decided to do something to change that!

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

I’ve always felt called towards helping others who are sick, even before I was sick myself! So when I am at the lowest points of my life, I tell myself that it will make me a better healthcare professional because I will have a deeper understanding of the experience of illness. If I can make it through, than I can pass that hope on to others that they can also make it through.

What lessons or messages have you taken away from your experience?

Every challenge is an opportunity to grow; don’t take good health for granted; life’s short: enjoy each moment!

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

I am proud to be a thyroid cancer survivor. When I was first sick, but undiagnosed, I felt completely depressed and overwhelmed. After the first diagnosis and treatment, I felt empowered and high on life. When I started feeling sick again and was diagnosed with a recurrence I felt discouraged, bitter, and fearful that I would never again achieve the quality of life I wanted. I didn’t fully let go of that bitterness and fear until my last follow-up test in December 2006 came back clear. It was a long road, but I feel fantastic now, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. This gives me confidence/hope that I am always able to achieve a high quality of life; even if I get sick again, I will recover. One day at a time, keep moving forward.

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?

Thyroid cancer currently has the fastest growing incidence of all cancers among young adults in Canada. Unfortunately, researchers haven’t figured out an explanation for this yet, so there is no focus for prevention efforts. However, I would encourage people to trust their instincts if they are feeling unwell for a long period of time and doctors are telling them nothing’s wrong, I encourage them to keep truckin’. Ask for new specialists, demand tests, and educate yourself as much as you can.

Did you attend any support groups during your challenge?

There weren’t any local thyroid cancer support groups. However, I attended a couple of international thyroid cancer conferences and joined the Canadian and American thyroid cancer survivor organizations (Thryvors and ThyCa), which offered me the opportunity to connect with other survivors online and provided educational support via websites and newsletters.

The conferences were educational, but I felt a bit disconnected because the majority of attendees were much older. Online support has been great.

I don’t think it really helped me emotionally, but was a great educational resource.

If you did not attend a support group, why?

Yes.

How are you connected with Young Adult Cancer?

One of my thesis committee members is professionally linked with Young Adult Cancer and told me about the group.

Fantastic! A very valuable resource for young adults.