Featured Story

Featured Story September 2019

The thyroid gland, which is the shape of a butterfly and smaller than your fist, controls numerous functions in the body. It produces hormones that regulate our body’s metabolic system, body temperature, controls our heart rate, digestion, muscle control, mood and bone growth. That’s why when thyroid cancer strikes, it is a very serious matter.
Six years ago, Heather Pitts was told she had thyroid cancer. For most people, treatment for thyroid cancer is successful, but Heather has been fighting a six-year battle and many of the common treatments have failed. Her doctors are baffled and continue to search for ways to help, but so far, it has been to no avail.
Her journey began after her son was born in March of 2013. After an 8-week leave from her job as assistant medical examiner in Dodge County, she returned to work. She had lost a lot of weight, her anxiety was high, she had some mental lapses and she was tired. Heather recalls, “I just chalked it up to being a single mom of three, working full-time, and breast feeding.”
She had made numerous trips to the emergency room, and her regular doctors were not able to find the cause of her problems. It was her co-worker, a physician, who finally questioned whether the doctors had checked any of her thyroid levels because the symptoms pointed to Hyperthyroidism or Grave’s disease.
In August, she had lab work done and they discovered her TSH was below normal and T4-Free was high. She thought she had finally found the problem. She made another doctor’s appointment a week out, but before that time came, she was dizzy and kept blacking out. Again, she went to the emergency room. This time, they took her by ambulance to the University of Wisconsin hospital with what the doctors called a “thyroid Storm.”
A thyroid storm is a life-threatening health condition that is associated with untreated or under-treated hyperthyroidism. During a thyroid storm, a person’s heart rate, blood pressure and body temperature soar to dangerously high levels.
Heather says she remembers nothing of the three days in ICU. When she came to, she met with an Endocrinologist who took her on as a patient. After numerous tests, they started her on medication and released her. When she had an allergic reaction to the treatment, the decision was made to have surgery and remove the thyroid.
She stayed a couple of days after the surgery because her calcium and magnesium levels had dropped dangerously low, and she needed to be monitored closely and receive an IV of calcium and magnesium until she stabilized. She recalls, “Through this all, I was still pumping and breastfeeding as much as I could. I went home three days later. On the fifth day, I started to have swelling and increased pain, so again I made a doctor’s appointment. When the nurse asked if someone would be coming with me, I knew it meant she knew I’d be staying in the hospital.”
That’s when she was told the pathology report showed papillary carcinoma of the right lobe and the main lymph node showed metastatic carcinoma. Heather says, “I was speechless. I took a deep breath and said, ‘What’s next?’ but all the while I was thinking this can’t be true. I have cancer; my baby is only 6 months old and my daughters are still little. How will I tell them?”
At that point, she knew she had to stop working for a while in order to schedule all the appointments she would need. She went back to her Endocrinologist, who was as stunned about the test results as Heather and her family. It meant she would have to take thyroid medication the rest of her life and undergo neck ultrasounds every three months.
After one ultrasound, she felt lumps and a CT scan showed several enlarged lymph nodes. She had a fine needle biopsy to take fluid off some nodes and test it. It was positive for carcinoma. In February, she went for her second surgery, a right neck dissection. A drain was put in to prevent swelling, but to no avail. Shortly after discharge, she was back in the doctor’s office.
That’s when she learned of the option of radioactive iodine to kill cancer cells. “I had to quit breastfeeding as the radiation would go into my milk. I had to be on a low iodine diet for a week prior to the treatment. It also came with many risks, including dental and bone issues, increased risk for secondary cancer or leukemia,” she notes.
To get the treatment, she needed to be in complete isolation for six days with her own room and bathroom. Afterwards, she needed to clean the bathroom with bleach and all her eating utensils had to be disposable. They were then thrown in a trash in her room and left outside for seven days before going to the landfill to decrease the radiation level.
In April, she had a full body scan to check for any remaining cancer. The test indicated she was cancer-free, so it was back to routine labs and CT scan follow-ups since ultrasounds would not show her nodules.
For two months, tests indicated the cancer cell levels were going down, and she felt some relief, but by June they were elevated again. A biopsy showed the cancer was back and she went back to surgery for a third time. This time, they did a neck dissection and removed 16 lymph nodes with 10 showing positive for metastatic papillary cancer.
The radiation had failed. A gene test indicated she was radiation resistant. RAI, as it is called, is rare, with about four people out of a million being resistant to radiation treatments. Life expectancy for patients with radio iodine refractory differentiated thyroid cancer is three to six years with a ten-year survival rate for ten percent from the time the lesions are detected.
In November 2014, she had a fourth surgery to remove all the lymph nodes on the right side of her neck from below the jawline to behind the ear. Again, the pathology came back as metastatic papillary thyroid cancer. “After four surgeries in such a short time, I have no feeling in my right neck,” she says. “It’s completely numb.”
A PET scan has indicated three suspicious spots in her left lower lung and four spots under her clavicle by her right subclavian artery. Surgery would require a long recovery, so right now, she is just waiting to see what the spots do. After the six-year ordeal, she is just taking a day at a time.
She had another daughter three and a half years ago, and she has gone back to work. She is, however, in constant pain and has developed fibromyalgia as a result of all the treatments. She was on pain killer for a long time but chose to wean herself off them.
“I finally said I can’t do this anymore,” she states. “I live daily with pain.” She adds, “Cancer has taken a lot from me, but I get up and keep going every day. I refuse to let cancer win. I have four children who need their Mom yet. I will continue to fight!”
Heather firmly believes thyroid cancer needs more awareness. September is Thyroid Cancer Awareness Month, and Heather is hoping more research and early detection will help prevent others from going through the ordeal she suffered. “Our ribbon is pink, purple and teal. I wear my ribbon proudly; cancer has me seeing life in another light,” she says.
She advises, “Say I love you daily to your family and never hide feelings, because you never know how long one has. Live each day as your last. AND FIGHT!” To all her Thyroid cancer warriors locally and across the world, and all cancer fighters and survivors, she says, “We need to find a cure for this horrible disease.”
There is no clear cause of thyroid cancer. It does happen more often in females than men. She suggests, “Check your neck. If you feel anything that doesn’t seem right, go to your doctor and always trust your gut. Never think you will be immune.” For more information, check the web at www.thyca.org.

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