Vicki Summers — Overcoming challenges in her battle against thyroid cancer
Vicki Summers was having a routine physical when her nurse practitioner discovered a lump in her neck. The discovery surprised Summers, as nothing was visible.
What she found bizarre was that until a close girlfriend had been diagnosed with it six months earlier, Summers had never heard of thyroid cancer. “But I went through it with her, and was familiar with it by that time,” she said.
Summers agreed to an ultrasound to have it thoroughly checked out. The friend told her, “You’ll be fine, as long as they don’t say, ‘Just a second – we need to have someone else take a look at this.’”
So when the nurse practitioner pulled out the scans and said, “Would you mind if I have someone else take a look at this?” she immediately thought, “I have cancer.”
The ultrasound was inconclusive, however; the next step was a fine-needle aspiration biopsy. One week later, Summers had a diagnosis of follicular thyroid cancer. Because the tumor was growing inward, not outward, it was still not visible; if her nurse practitioner hadn’t conducted such a thorough exam, Summers said, it might have been months before it was discovered.
Her friend’s advice again proved valuable. She was receiving treatment at UC Davis Health System at the recommendation of her brother, an out-of-state doctor who had researched the best cancer centers in the region. “Because my girlfriend had such a positive experience with UC Davis Health System, I trusted her recommendation,” Summers said.
Summers began treatment with Steve Martinez, assistant professor of surgical oncology, and a complete thyroidectomy was scheduled. That was the easy part, she said.
“The hard part was after that, with the diet from hell: the no-iodine diet,” she said. “You can only have chicken, beef, and organic fruits and vegetables. No root veggies, no seafood, no fish, grains, milk or sugar. It was difficult – I like having milk with my coffee! But UC Davis is strict about the regimen, and I stuck to it 100 percent. If you’re going to do it, do it right.”
The diet was in preparation for her radioactive iodine ablation with iodine 131 (I-131), a type of radiation treatment that kills any residual cancer cells after surgery.
If the no-iodine diet was difficult, being temporarily taken off her thyroid medication at the same time didn’t help. “You have no metabolism at all,” Summers said. “I’m an avid cyclist, and I couldn’t even make it up two flights of stairs without stopping to rest. It’s amazing – you don’t realize what the thyroid does until it’s gone.”
“I’m not a depressed person by nature, but I was tired and depressed,” she continued. “You know it’s a purely physical reaction and is only for a limited amount of time. But by the time I got to the radioactive iodine ablation, I was wiped out.”
The I-131 ablation itself was also nerve-wracking. “I’m one of those people who don’t use pesticides, don’t use bug spray, and I eat all organic foods,” she said. “The idea of becoming radioactive was freaky."
Not allowed to be around people for a minimum of three days, she waited it out at a friend’s cabin in Tahoe. (A friend made a radioactivity-themed CD for her drive.)
Six months later, out of concern that some cancer remained, Summers went through the no-iodine diet and additional scans. The tests fortunately proved negative for any remaining cancer.
Now without a thyroid gland, Summers is on levothyroxine permanently. Blisters in her mouth, a side effect from the radiation, made her lose her sense of taste for six months, and has done permanent damage to her salivary glands. But she has been clear for more than a year, and now sees her endocrinologist, Manish Upadhyay, every six months, and Martinez just once a year for follow-up.
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