“If you are going to have cancer, then this is the best kind of cancer to have.”
I had heard some iteration of this phrase no less than half a dozen times in the past two months. Doctors, nurses, cancer survivors, all seemed to dance to the beat of this same drum: If you are going to be diagnosed with cancer, this is the one you want to have.
The notion was comforting in some ways: When my endocrinologist first dropped the “You have thyroid cancer” bombshell on me in early September, my initial response was a mild form of panic.
I had just turned 30 years old. I was a world-traveling reporter, in generally good health, sporting a Chris Stapleton-esque combination of beard and long hair, and coming off a year that saw my reporting earn multiple national award nominations. Things were looking as good as they ever had.
“Certainly I couldn’t have cancer, could I?” I thought.
For those, like myself, who haven’t taken a biology course since high school, a diagnosis of thyroid cancer came with a healthy requisite amount of confusion.
At the time, I would have been hard pressed, under pressure, to point out where the thyroid was located on my body or to explain what its general function was.
The U.S. National Library of Medicine defines the thyroid gland as the butterfly-shaped organ, located under the voice box and around the windpipe, which plays a major role in the metabolism, growth and development of the human body by releasing thyroid hormone into the bloodstream.
Papillary thyroid cancer, the kind that has taken up residency in my neck, is the most common form of thyroid cancer and accounts for about 80 percent of cases. Some of the others are pretty nasty. I would recommend against Googling them, unless you want to keep yourself up at night.
According to the American Cancer Society, thyroid cancer is the most rapidly increasing cancer diagnosis in the U.S., with cases having tripled in the past three decades. The American Thyroid Association now estimates as many as 20 million Americans have some form of thyroid disease, up to 60 percent of whom are unaware of their condition.
This idea of a “good cancer” began to sound more and more like a ruse. The reporter in me was certainly curious. The patient in me was terrified.
I had passingly heard of some famous people who had publicly grappled with the disease. Sofia Vergara, early in her career. Brooke Burke-Charvet, from "Dancing With the Stars." Rod Stewart publicly struggled to regain his voice after a bout with “the Big C.”
“It was a terrible shock,” he told ABC News’ Diane Sawyer in 2001. “I mean, I just went into total silence for a few days.”
His tumors were found much the same way mine were: completely incidentally, by a CT scan that was being used to look for something else. Doctors at the time were looking for something to explain a strange, and ultimately benign, series of symptoms I was experiencing -- but not cancer. That was never in the cards.
Going from being told “There was an irregularity on your CT scan” to “You have cancer” was a whirlwind couple of months that included having multiple ultrasounds and multiple tests where large needles were methodically poked and prodded into my neck (a test known as a fine needle aspiration, or FNA, biopsy).
Those, surprisingly, ultimately proved completely painless, and were instrumental in diagnosing the disease: a malignant cancerous tumor in my thyroid, with a second suspicious tumor that turned out not to be cancerous, and confirmed evidence of metastasis (spread) to a lymph node in the right side of my neck. My endocrinologist promptly scheduled me for a consultation with a leading endocrine cancers program in Connecticut.
For the majority of thyroid cancer patients, a diagnosis of cancer is not a dire prognosis. The most common forms of thyroid cancer have cure rates as high as 98 percent if treated appropriately, most often with surgery that includes partial or total removal of the thyroid gland.
For some, like myself, radioactive iodine treatment may be necessary beyond the initial surgery.
As a reporter, I’m frequently thrust into the front lines of a story, documenting some of the most incredible journeys and the most awe-inspiring people. Rarely, however, do I find myself at the center of the story.
This process, therefore, is a report from experience; a journey, not just to understand the cancer in my body, but the medicine, science and incredible personal stories behind some of the scariest conditions.
In my subsequent reports, you will hear from a series of interviews with world-renowned physicians and surgeons at the forefront of treating thyroid cancers, and we will dive deep into the rise of thyroid cancer cases not just in the U.S., but in places like Japan and South Korea (and how the medical community responded).
While any cancer diagnosis brings with it a whirlwind of emotion and confusion, as I head into a treatment program that will inevitably change my life in many ways, I find myself feeling fortunate. Fortunate that generations of physicians, surgeons and researchers have dialed in the treatment for most thyroid cancers, making the diagnosis and treatment process a less daunting endeavor for patients like myself.
Fortunate, also, to have found a community of survivors dedicated to the education and foundational support for patients preparing to battle this disease. People like Gary Bloom, the director of ThyCa (Thyroid Cancer Survivors Association), and Joan Shey, the founder of the Light of Life Foundation, who famously started the “Check Your Neck” campaign. They both personally maintain contact with and provide a wealth of information to thyroid cancer patients at any stage of their treatment process.
I’ve lived my life by a motto: An adventure is waiting. Life has chosen this adventure for me. It is my duty to report back what I learn.
John Kapetaneas is a journalist and segment producer for ABC News' "Nightline."