Coping With Thyroid Cancer

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If you have been diagnosed with thyroid cancer or you are a friend, family member, or caretaker for someone with the disease, it’s important for you to know how to cope physically, socially, emotionally, and practically. While diagnoses of thyroid cancer are on the rise, it's still a relatively rare cancer and most cases are highly treatable. Still, being diagnosed with cancer can be overwhelming in many ways. It will take some time for you to come to terms with the diagnosis and figure out what coping methods help the most.

Emotional

Feeling scared, depressed, anxious, and angry after a cancer diagnosis is completely normal. Your friends, family, and caretakers may experience these feelings too. Life as you all know it is about to change, possibly in ways you aren't expecting. Try to take each day as it comes.

Education

Learning everything you can about your thyroid cancer can help you feel less afraid and more in control of the decisions you need to make about your care. The website of the Thyroid Cancer Survivors' Association, known as ThyCa, is a helpful resource that features a broad range of information on thyroid cancer. There you'll find up-to-date, helpful information such as:

You can also sign up to get ThyCa's free newsletter and an information packet.

Other resources:

Watch for Depression

While a wide array of emotions is normal, you need to be aware of the symptoms of clinical depression in case these feelings become a problem. In the event that you develop depression, getting treatment for it is vital not only for your emotional health but your physical health as well. Be sure to talk to your doctor or tell someone if you or a loved one have any of these symptoms:

  • Thoughts of dying, hurting yourself, or suicide (call your doctor if these are severe or you're worried)
  • Difficulty eating or sleeping
  • Confusion
  • Inability to enjoy activities in which you used to find pleasure
  • Strong emotions that make it hard to deal with the daily tasks of living such as basic hygiene, preparing meals, etc., for more than three to four days
  • Disinterest in normal activities for many days
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Increased sweating
  • Extreme restlessness
  • New or concerning symptoms

Physical

There are some physical components of coping with thyroid cancer too, and tending to them can help you not only feel better about yourself but get the best outcome of your treatment.

Following Your Treatment Plan

You'll have the best outcome for your thyroid cancer when you work with healthcare providers who have experience diagnosing, treating, and managing thyroid cancer. It can be a lot of work, but this means showing up for all of your treatments as scheduled, taking any medications exactly as prescribed, and following any directions you're given to the letter.

Be sure to tell your doctor about any side effects you may be having from treatment, so he or she can weigh in on ways to help you better cope with them. If you have questions about anything regarding your plan, your doctor, surgeon, nurse, pharmacist, or another medical professional will likely be more than happy to answer them for you.

What to Eat After Surgery

If you're going to have or you've just had a thyroidectomy or a lobectomy, you may be wondering if you need to change your diet after surgery. For most people, a special diet is unnecessary. If you find that your throat is sore, likely a result of the endotracheal tube that's used to help you breathe during the surgery, you may want to eat soft and/or cold foods until it feels better. Otherwise, your doctor will tell you if you have any restrictions, but most people can resume a normal diet right away.

Dealing With a Scar

If you've had a thyroidectomy or a lobectomy, you may be feeling self-conscious about your scar, especially in the first months following your surgery. Here are some suggestions if this is a concern for you:

  • Wear a scarf: The advantage of wearing scarves is that there are so many different colors, fabrics, patterns, and ways to wear them. There are even lightweight scarves for warm weather. Look online for some ideas if you're not sure where to start. It may be a bit harder to wear a scarf if you're a man, but they can still be worn fashionably.
  • Try a turtleneck: These come in everything from sweaters to sleeveless shirts, and you can layer them with other options if desired.
  • Apply makeup or other concealing cosmetics: Concealers, foundations, and tinted moisturizers can all work to blend your scar in with the rest of your neck. There's a specialty product called Dermablend that works well to conceal scars, tattoos, and birthmarks. If you recently had thyroid surgery, you should probably check with your doctor before you apply any of these cosmetics to make sure they don't interfere with your incision healing or irritate your skin.
  • Use a scar cream: You can find one at any discount or drugstore. Mederma, a popular option, is easy to use and diminishes the appearance of scars, especially if you start using it immediately after your incision is completely healed. It even works on old scars.
  • Wear a necklace: It won't hide your scar, but a necklace can attract people's attention away from your skin. Try thick necklaces, a choker, or a pendant.
  • Consult a plastic surgeon or dermatologist: If none of these methods help you stop feeling self-conscious, consider seeing a plastic surgeon or a dermatologist for a consultation. A plastic surgeon can discuss scar revision surgery with you, as well as other cosmetic procedures that can help minimize your scar. A dermatologist is a good option if you've just had thyroid surgery, your wound is still healing, and you want to explore using silicone sheeting, cortisone injections, or other methods to help your wound heal more cleanly. 

A Low-Iodine Diet

You may need to follow a low-iodine diet for several weeks before having follow-up radioactive iodine scans to detect any recurrence of thyroid cancer. ThyCa has an informative page with information on how to follow a low-iodine diet, as well as a free low-iodine cookbook with hundreds of recipes available as a PDF download. The American Thyroid Association also has a helpful low-iodine diet page.

In general, you will need to avoid these foods/ingredients:

  • Dairy
  • Eggs
  • Fish and seafood
  • Processed foods
  • Commercial baked goods
  • Soy
  • Maraschino cherries
  • Chocolate
  • Red dye #3
  • Beans like kidney beans, lima beans, navy beans, cowpeas, and pinto beans

Lifestyle Changes

Though there's no clear evidence that living a healthy lifestyle will decrease the chances of your thyroid cancer coming back, it may help. At the very least, healthy living boosts your physical and emotional health and helps you feel better. Lifestyle changes you may want to consider implementing include:

  • Exercise: Regular exercise helps boost your mood, is good for your heart, helps you lose weight or stay at a normal weight, makes you stronger, lessens your risk for developing certain cancers, and increases your energy.
  • Healthy diet: A diet that's rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein is good for your heart, your weight, and your health. Limit your intake of fat, sugar, and processed foods.
  • Quit smoking: If you smoke, quitting is the single best thing you can do for your overall health. Talk to your doctor about coming up with a treatment plan that works for you. You can also call the American Cancer Society at 1-800-227-2345 for help.
  • Minimize stress: Too much stress is hard on your body and your emotional health. Try delegating some tasks so you aren't overloaded. Learn stress management techniques such as meditation, yoga, deep breathing, and relaxation exercises. Take time for yourself to do activities you enjoy.

After-Treatment Care

Even when you complete treatment, you will need to see your doctor regularly so he or she can watch you for any changes such as your cancer coming back or spreading somewhere else in your body, as well as any related side effects you might still be having. Your doctor will need to do blood tests and scans periodically, depending on the type and stage of thyroid cancer you had.

Thyroid cancer tends to grow extremely slowly and can come back as many as 10 or 20 years after you've already had it. Additionally, having had thyroid cancer may put you at an increased risk of developing high blood pressure or cardiomyopathy, a disease of your heart muscles, especially if you were diagnosed with cancer before the age of 40 years. Getting good medical follow-up care helps your doctor monitor these issues and deal with them early, should any arise.

Social

It's important to have support, whether it's from your friends, family, caretakers, or a support group. Connecting with other people who know what you're going through has been shown to help relieve stress, reduce depression and anxiety, and help you have a better quality of life.

Support Groups

There are a number of thyroid cancer support groups, from in-person to email to online forums. Here are some resources:

Annual ThyCa Conference

The Thyroid Cancer Survivors’ Association (ThyCa) holds an annual conference for thyroid cancer patients and caregivers, often in September, which is Thyroid Cancer Awareness Month. The conference features speakers on all aspects of thyroid cancer, including treatment options, latest developments, nutrition, and lifestyle.

Practical

If you're looking for medical centers and thyroid cancer specialists that are at the top of the field, here are some resources to help you get started.

Medical Centers

Some of the leading medical centers and hospitals for thyroid cancer diagnosis and treatments:

  • Mayo Clinic has campuses in Minnesota, Arizona, and Florida, uses a multidisciplinary approach to treatment, and cares for more than 2,800 people with thyroid cancer every year.
  • The Center for Endocrine Tumors at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston has one of the biggest thyroid tumor treatment programs in the United States.
  • Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio, is renowned for its cutting-edge care and has a large presence in the world of clinical cancer research, giving patients opportunities to be involved in clinical trials and try new treatments.
  • Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, Maryland, provides thyroid cancer patients with comprehensive care by a team of specialists, as well as a chance to participate in clinical trials for cancer research.
  • Columbia Thyroid Center at Columbia University Medical Center/New York-Presbyterian in New York City and Tarrytown, New York, offers same-day biopsies of thyroid tumors, as well as top-notch care.
  • Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City has treated more than 6,000 patients with thyroid cancer, boasts a cancer survivorship program, and also offers clinical trials.

    Thyroid Cancer Specialists

    If you're looking for an experienced surgeon with expertise in thyroid cancer, there are several organizations that have lists or databases of physicians who are thyroid cancer specialists, including:

    Keep Medical Records Copies

    Make sure that you always keep copies of your important medical records or that you have online access to them. This includes test results, treatment summaries, discharge summaries for hospital stays, operative reports if you had surgery, and lists of drugs and/or therapies you had, including what you took, how much, and for how long. This information is helpful if you need to see a new doctor who is unfamiliar with your history of having thyroid cancer.

    View Article Sources
    • American Cancer Society. Living as a Thyroid Cancer Survivor. Updated April 15, 2016. www.cancer.org/cancer/thyroid-cancer/after-treatment/follow-up.html
    • Mayo Clinic Staff. Thyroid Cancer. Mayo Clinic. Updated March 13, 2018. www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/thyroid-cancer/diagnosis-treatment/drc-20354167