Tuesday, March 22, 2011

March 22, 2011 – Another Cancer

It’s official: I have to undergo cancer treatment again. Only this time, it’s not for lymphoma. It’s for thyroid cancer.

Ever since my chemotherapy ended, I’ve been having routine scans every 3 or 4 months to monitor my NHL. Two scans ago, a PET/CT scan flagged an area at the base of my neck as a possible malignancy. Then, an ultrasound turned up a nodule on the left side of my thyroid gland.

It was too small to biopsy. Dr. Jay Sher, the endocrinologist I consulted, recommended “watch and wait.”

Several months later, I had a follow-up PET/CT scan. The nodule had doubled in size, to around 1.5 centimeters. I contacted Dr. Sher, who sent me for another ultrasound, then a needle biopsy.

The results are now in: papillary thyroid cancer. I learned the results not from Dr. Sher, who didn’t phone me soon after receiving the results, but from our family-practice physician, Dr. David Cheli, who called late last week. He’d received a copy of the pathology report and phoned to tell me what’s in it. He reassured me that this form of thyroid cancer is highly treatable.

A few minutes later, I called Dr. Cheli’s office back and asked them to fax me a copy of the pathology report, and I’m glad I did. If I hadn’t done that, I would have waited a long time to learn of the details. Dr. Sher’s office staff told me on Wednesday they’d received the pathologist’s narrative report, but he didn’t actually call until yesterday – and then, only after I’d left two messages for him and faxed his office my own copy of the pathology report, as a back-up.

On the phone, Dr. Sher was upbeat and jocular. This is the most treatable of all cancers, he told me. “We just pop your thyroid out, you come back a little later and take a pill, and you’re all done.” Absolutely nothing to worry about.

Around here, it seems, it’s harder to get through to an endocrinologist than any other kind of doctor. (Medical Student Alert: if supply-and-demand makes a difference to your career choice, maybe you ought to think about endocrinology).

Dr. Sher told me he often works with a Dr. Sean Houston, an otolaryingologist who does the actual thyroid surgery. He suggested I phone Dr. Houston and set up a surgery date, then let him know when it’s going to be.

Dr. Lerner had mentioned a Dr. Alexander Shifrin, a well-regarded local surgeon who does a great deal of thyroid operations. I mentioned Dr. Shifrin’s name to Dr. Sher, but he suggested Dr. Houston instead, explaining that all his patients go to him, with very good results.

My situation seems so cut-and-dry, with a clear treatment protocol and a very optimistic prognosis. I actually thought for a minute or two about not bothering with a second opinion, but then I reminded myself of my own advice to so many others. Yesterday, I called Dr. Carol Portlock’s office at Memorial Sloan-Kettering, then faxed them a copy of my pathology report.

Dr. Portlock’s assistant, Ernestine – one of the most friendly and efficient people I’ve ever had on the other end of a telephone line, bar none – explained that the doctor would surely want to refer me to a colleague in the thyroid department at MSKCC. That was exactly what I’d expected, but I figured it was best to start with my established connection, so as to get an internal referral.

This morning, Ernestine phoned back with the name of Dr. Jay Boyle, an otolaryngologist at MSKCC. I phoned for an appointment, and learned that he has an opening for a consultation tomorrow morning at their satellite location in Basking Ridge, NJ. Because that’s a much more convenient location than Manhattan, and because the next opportunity would be a week later in Manhattan or two weeks later in Basking Ridge, I jumped at it.

A flurry of phone calls later, and I’ve got all my ducks in a row to pick up my PET/CT disks from Dr. Lerner’s office this afternoon, and my pathology slides and ultrasound disks from Jersey Shore first thing tomorrow morning. From there, I’ll drive straight to Basking Ridge. They can't seem to locate the disk from my January 31 PET/CT scan, but that's not so important. It's the thyroid ultrasounds and the needle biopsy slides that Dr. Boyle will probably be most interested in.

Thank goodness, I know how all these systems work. If I’d been a cancer newbie, I’d never have been able to gather all that material together in such a short time (and I’m grateful to some very understanding people at Jersey Shore’s pathology department, who waived their usual 24-hour waiting period for getting pathology slides ready for release).

So, here we go again. Because of the highly favorable prognosis, I’m far less worried than I was at the time of my lymphoma diagnosis. If I have any anxiety other than the normal jitters about going into an operating room, it has to do with the delicate nature of thyroid surgery in general. I use my voice for a living, so I want to make sure any surgeon messing around near my larynx and vocal cords is very experienced indeed. Where and when I’ll go for the surgery remains to be seen, but the next few days will tell.


Ronni Gordon said...

So sorry to hear it, Carl, but so glad it's extremely treatable. And how frustrating to have a doctor not call back! I often wonder how people manage when they don't understand how the system works. Glad you put your "expertise" to good use.

Brooke said...

sorry to hear about the second cancer, but yeah! for knowing the system and contacting MSKCC. MSKCC has a sweet spot in my heart because they gave my father 3 years more than expected after his stage 4 prostate cancer diagnosis (he died last year from it). you'll be in my prayers.

Brooke R. in Logan, UT.

Whidbey Woman said...

Praying for you right now, Pastor.
So sorry to hear this news.

Wendy S. Harpham, MD said...


I hope and pray for
* your continued equanimity
* consultants to be wise and caring
* surgeons to expert and careful
* a speedy and complete recovery

Your blog does a great service by showing how people can grow through adversity, conferring skills that can help for the rest of their life.

With hope, Wendy

Carl said...

Thanks for the prayers and good wishes, everyone!

Miranda said...

My family physician put me on a well balanced diet and recommended that i take thyroid natural supplements to help me speed up my metabolism. Thanks to that, I have lost weight and gained more energy.