Meet Sarah...

Sarah, thyroid cancer

How did you find out you had cancer?
I noticed how my neck looked inflamed and enlarged in January 2014 and I then had series of illnesses that no-one could link together. I then had a further four months of tests, scans, biopsies and a diagnosis of thyroiditis (an infection of the thyroid). After a course of steroids that didn’t change anything, I had an operation to remove the left-hand side of my thyroid. After the operation I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. I didn’t even know that was a cancer at first!

What did you think/feel when you were diagnosed?
I remember the day that I found out vividly. The nurse had called me the day before to come in first thing in the morning. My gut instinct was that something was wrong – I had that horrible feeling when you just know it will be bad news. The following day I just remember sitting there in total shock. I was on my own and tried to take it all in, agreeing to a treatment plan, but I didn’t remember a thing after the doctor told me I had cancer. All I remember is leaving the hospital and thinking, “I am 26, how can I have cancer at 26?”. A few days later I was on autopilot. I began telling those close to me the facts and started my treatment. I don’t think it properly sunk in for a long time afterward, but as soon as it did, I was hit by a wall of complete fear.

How did the people around you react?
People around me were shocked but didn’t want to show it. Many have been very supportive which means a lot. Everyone is supportive in their own way although I have found often people didn’t know what to say to me. At the time I didn’t know what I wanted them to say – sometimes the smallest things make a big difference. It is a great to have a range of support, from my partner who has been amazing throughout my treatment, to my family and friends who are always on the other end of the phone when I need them. I found some people were very awkward and kind of disappeared; it just shows you who your true friends are.

What treatment did you have?
I had 3 separate operations to remove my thyroid and lymph nodes in my neck. At the time they removed my thyroid, they didn’t think the cancer had spread and that it was only contained in the left-hand side. Five months later I then had lymph nodes in my neck removed. In addition to surgery I also had two rounds of radioactive iodine treatment which involves killing the cancer cells from the inside with radiation.

How did you feel through treatment?
I hated the operations the most because the pain and discomfort through recovery was horrid, in addition to the rubbish hospital food! At the time you just want the cancer out – then you have to deal with the physio, numbness and aching from the surgery! All I wanted to do was get on with my daily life but it gets put on hold when you have cancer. The radioactive iodine treatment was very lonely; it involves taking a radioactive pill, aimed to target all the thyroid cancer cells in your body. You have to stay on an isolation ward in hospital for a few days, eat a ‘low iodine diet’ and then be aware of how close you are to people for up to three weeks afterward. It was testing - even during train trips I had isolate myself!

What happened after treatment finished?
I am currently being followed up every three months with scans and blood tests. I felt a little lost when I finished on what I like to call the ‘treatment train’. Suddenly I felt like I had been left at the platform trying to work out how to move forward. I am now back at work full-time, and through work I’ve been getting counselling and support. I still have challenging days where the smallest triggers can affect me but just taking it a day at a time and practising some mindfulness is helpful. I have also started to look at other activities I want to get involved with: taking up some more gym classes, exploring new places, and volunteering.

How did you get involved with Shine?
I attended a returning to work after cancer workshop which I found online and it was exactly what I needed to help go back to work. I then found out more about Shine and discovered that Shine was the piece of my recovery that I was looking for. I wanted support to stop me feeling isolated and I wanted to meet more young people who actually knew was it felt like. For me Shine has delivered all of this and more.

What difference has Shine made to you?
Shine has made me feel so much more confident and connected to others. I was one of those people who went through their treatment bottling everything up. It was always easier in my eyes to say ‘I’m fine’ rather than to tell people how I really felt. Shine, and particularly the Great Escape, has helped me to meet amazing people who have really helped me open up about exactly how I am feeling and to realise that I shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help. Now I accept that it is okay to feel bad some days, I don’t feel like I have to hide it – it’s cancer and it really does interrupt your whole life! Shine aims to bring people together and encourages me to talk to others outside of the network and educate them about what it is like to have cancer, so that they don’t need to feel awkward anymore.

How do you feel now about your experiences? What‘s been the biggest change you’ve faced?
I was a very confident, bubbly, independent person before I had cancer – I felt like that cancer changed that for me and I didn’t want it to. I felt lost after my treatment and I wanted to get that person back but I was scared, and I didn’t know how. Through support of my family, friends, Shine and work I am starting to realise that I can get that back, it will just take a bit of time! While I was going through treatment all I wanted to do was get to the end – but now I am starting to take each day as it comes and enjoy the moment. As a great quote I recently saw on Instagram says: ‘the only time you should look back is to see how far you have come”.

If you could give one piece of advice to yourself before your what would it be?
Before cancer I felt like the smallest things would be worries, but I like to look at the bigger picture a lot more now. If I could tell myself anything it would be ‘don’t sweat the small stuff – and do what makes you happy!’ Everyone deserves to be happy everyday, even if it is a coffee with a friend, or some time dedicated to your favourite hobby. It really makes a difference to how you feel. Through Shine I have learned so much but especially that people are there to support you – don’t push them away’ Before cancer I felt like I could do everything on my own; but other people are there to help, because they want to and being honest with people helps you move forward.