It Took Thyroid Cancer To Teach Me What Self-Care Really Means

by Jennifer Palumbo
Originally Published: 
Jennifer Palumbo

I’m currently sitting here looking like a Pez Dispenser (without the candy). Why? Because, just five days ago, I was diagnosed with “Noninvasive follicular thyroid neoplasm with papillary like nuclear features (NIFTP). “This is BOTH a mouthful and a non-invasive cancer.

Before I explain this recent diagnosis with you and why I hope it’ll make you care about your own health, let me briefly share with you some highlights of my medical history as my body and I have a history of not getting along:

– There was my tonsillectomy at 23 years old (instead of at age five like a normal person). My job at the time wouldn’t give me time off for it. I was forced to use my vacation time, so I made sure to take lot of pictures and shared them with everyone when I returned. “Here’s me in my hospital gown… this is me throwing up… me giving the camera the finger…”

– Then there was my uterine polyp at age 35, which I named, “Jackson Polyp.” He was an artist who was basically a squatter in my uterus and was cock-blocking my efforts to try and get pregnant at the time. He briefly even had his own Twitter account before he was evicted.

– Then there was my gallbladder, Gary, at age 37. Gary the Gallbladder is out and made it possible for me to eat eggs again.

I’ve gone on to have continued health issues here and there, become a mother to two (including one child who has autism), I have a house to take care of, laundry to do, an amazing husband who lacks the ability to close a cabinet or put away his shoes, I run my own business, and it can be difficult to find the time to continue to stay on top of every ache, pain and health concern that arises these days. Slowly, I’ve become lower and lower on my “to do list” and I tend to fall below “Drain the hot water heater on a weekly basis.”

Overall, when you think of self-care, you think: have a cup of tea, get a bath bomb, a massage or sneak into the bathroom to eat some chocolate. While I support doing all these things (simultaneously if need be), my recent thyroid cancer adventure has really brought home just how many women are not caring for their actual health let alone practicing self-care.

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The reality is, I’ve known about the nodule on my thyroid for ten years. And well, I’ve put off doing anything about it. It’s not that I didn’t care, as I genuinely consider myself a health advocate. It’s more that there was always something else to be dealt with. There were my other surgeries, years of infertility treatment, finally having children, I had a heart issue to tend to (as I found out later, the heart issue was actually related to my thyroid) and then, my oldest needed tending to do with his ASD diagnosis, then a new season of Younger started, another pile of laundry had to be done, I needed to see the latest Netflix documentary… I got distracted by something shiny… you know how it is.

However, in the last few years, my hair has been thinning, I’ve been having trouble losing weight, my period has been irregular and, as I mentioned, I was having some heart issues. Initially, these things were explained away by perimenopause, bad luck, low blood pressure, etc. And even though I’m a fierce advocate for my children and for fertility matters (as I know it best), when it came to advocate for my own health, I admittedly I got lazy.

Eventually, I had an ultrasound and needle biopsy done on my thyroid. The needle biopsy came back with a 5% to 15% chance of being cancerous. From there, they sent it to a genetics lab to be analyzed and it came back with a “gene expression of being 50% chance of being cancerous.”

Quick side note: When I heard the term “gene expression,” my mind immediately went to expressions Gene Wilder has used in his movies, like, “Strike that… reverse it.” Or “Life! Life, do you hear me?! Give my creation LIIIFEEE!!!!!!” But I digress…

So, I had it removed, and the pathology report came back as Noninvasive follicular thyroid neoplasm with papillary like nuclear features (NIFTP). When I called friends to update on all of this, too many confided in me that they had one medical issue or another they were ignoring, or they hadn’t been to doctors at all. A close friend of mine even shared, “I haven’t had a physical in ten years. If I take time off from work, it’s to take the kids to the doctors. Not myself.”

We hear and talk a lot about self-care. The term is thrown around as much as “empower,” “clap back,” or “inside voice,” but why as parents do we not put the oxygen mask on ourselves first?

A while back, I read about a study by Redbook and HealthyWomen (a non-profit dedicated to providing women with health information) that found that 45% of women over 30 do not make time for their own health, in part because they’re too busy managing everyone else’s. The more I think about myself and talk to my friends, this statistic seems incredibly accurate.

I asked my friend, Carrie Gottlieb, who also happens to be a licensed clinical psychologist, why women don’t put themselves on the priority list. “I think women are often put into or take on caretaker roles with children, partners, even older parents. This makes it feel natural to put the needs of others before ourselves and perhaps even feel guilty if we can’t or choose not to. Often women are raised to be ‘good girls’ and ‘people pleasers,’ this makes it even more of a challenge for women to say no when someone else might need something or to put themselves first.”

According to the American Thyroid Association, women are five to eight times more likely than men to have a thyroid problem, and women of all ages develop thyroid issues — during puberty, pregnancy, postpartum, and perimenopause. What’s even more shocking is that undiagnosed thyroid disease may put patients at risk for certain serious conditions, such as cardiovascular diseases, osteoporosis, and infertility.

But even if it’s not your thyroid, is there another health issue you’re putting on the back burner? When you see a quote on Instagram about self-care that says something like, “Fill your own cup!” or “Self-care isn’t selfish!”, how about you think about when your last pap smear was, or if you need a mammogram, or if that nagging pain you’ve been ignoring should perhaps be paid attention to.

As my friend Carrie added, “The truth is, we all have breaking points. Maybe it’s okay to take your kids to soccer or your mother to the doctor — but, some time you must matter too — because the consequences of never doing that leaves you feeling burnt out, stressed, irritable, and likely less able to care for both yourself and everyone else.”

The reality is that if I kept ignoring my symptoms and my thyroid (who I’ve recently named, “Sweeney Todd” thanks to the slash mark across my throat), it could have gotten much worse and maybe even metastasized. Self-care needs to be healthcare for ourselves.

We have so many commitments to so many things. Making a commitment to care for ourselves and our health doesn’t seem like a lot, but I’m realizing it’s harder and perhaps more than we realize. It’s easy to get distracted and push our own needs to the back burner, but we can’t. Self-care has to be more than scented candles, five minutes of meditation, and a pint of ice cream. Again, I love these things, but since our lives depend on us, well, being alive… we need to make caring for our health as paramount as caring for anyone else’s.

As for me, I shall remain vigilant. Not just about going to the doctor, but about making sure I get the care I deserve once I get there. We, as women, should support each other and ourselves, even when we look like a Pez dispenser.

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