Shauna L.

Thyroid Cancer - Stage 1

Shauna Luera

I got through cancer treatment with the support of my family and friends. City of Hope became a second family to me—all the patients, caregivers, doctors and clinicians I met there. They say it takes a village to raise kids. Well, it takes an army to fight cancer. You can’t do it alone. It is a battle on every front. You need to have all available weapons along with soldiers supporting you.

This testimonial includes a description of this patient’s actual medical results. Those results may not be typical or expected for the particular disease type described in this testimonial. You should not expect to experience these results. 

I grew up in Eastern Arizona in a small town called Cibecue on the White Mountain Apache Indian Reservation. My parents were Lutheran teachers and were sent there for their first mission. It is beautiful country, with mountains, pine trees, lakes and all seasons of weather.

Growing up on an Apache reservation, I learned a lot about the earth, the human soul finding balance. I lived there until I was 17, and after graduating high school, I moved to a big city in Kansas to live with my sister. She helped me mature and get my first job.

Family brought me back to Arizona because I wanted to be closer to my parents. I moved to a suburb of Phoenix, where I still live. Then in 2007, my dad was diagnosed with prostate cancer. So I quit my job in medical billing and told my dad he needed to come stay with me and my family, since there was no medical care near the reservation for cancer treatment. I was his caregiver, helping him navigate through his surgery and radiation. I drove him to his appointments and kept his schedule because all of his doctors were in different locations. After treatment, he moved back to the reservation and resumed his full-time work as deputy fire chief.

Something wasn’t right

In 2009, I began experiencing joint pain and swelling. It was strange because I felt like I was mindfully healthy. I had found a balance between exercising, eating right, volunteering and being with my kids.

But I knew something was off, so I went to the doctor and had my thyroid checked. The tests showed nothing abnormal. I continued to get checked out, but none of my tests or check-ups showed an issue. Finally, in 2011, my thyroid levels indicated that I had hypothyroidism. I started taking medication and assumed that I had addressed the problem.

Immediately after starting the drugs, I got a butterfly-shaped rash on my neck. I tried to avoid specific soaps and perfumes, and it would come and go. After six months, my doctor ordered an ultrasound, and I found out I had two nodules. They were so small, you couldn’t feel them or see them. I was referred to an endocrinologist, who did a fine-needle biopsy in the office. I was diagnosed with papillary thyroid carcinoma.  

Time to educate myself

I went home and started doing research. I first read everything I could about my cancer type, including available treatments. I knew a friend who had gone to Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA),* so I decided to take a look at the website. A chat box popped up, and before I knew it, I was on the phone with CTCA®. The Oncology Information Specialist provided me with a lot of information about my cancer type. I was impressed, so my husband and I decided it was worth finding out what CTCA could do to help me.

Within a week, I had an appointment scheduled for CTCA. I couldn’t believe how fast it happened. They got my information and sent for my health records.

From the first evaluation, I knew that I didn’t want to get treatment anywhere else.

I am very in touch with my body, so I knew I wanted whole-person care. I wanted to receive supportive care, and I knew I wanted everything under one roof. I had previously cared for my dad and knew firsthand how difficult it was trying to schedule all the appointments and drive to all the locations. Having a multidisciplinary care team all at one place was important to me.

Treatment options

I was given the choice of a partial or complete thyroidectomy. In August 2012, I decided to undergo a total thyroidectomy. In the surgery, my surgical oncologist took out my thyroid and several lymph nodes.

After about a month of recovery, my voice finally came back. In October, I received radioactive iodine to destroy remaining cells that may have been left after surgery. I was an inpatient at the hospital in isolation to prevent others from being exposed to radiation. It could have taken up to four days for the radiation to be absorbed. My husband sent greeting cards to me each day with words of encouragement. After two days, I was released, feeling excited that my cancer treatment was almost done.

During and after treatment, I used the various supportive therapies available at the hospital. I worked with speech therapists to help improve my speech, swallowing and breathing. Other supportive care services I used included physical therapy and occupational therapy.

At my follow-up appointment in April 2013, my doctor felt several lymph nodes on the right side of my neck. Tests revealed that my blood work and scans were clear. But my doctor felt strongly that we needed to do an MRI and PET scan. That’s when I found out I had an aggressive form of cancer, and my body did not absorb the radioactive iodine.

I had a right radical neck dissection in June 2013. The surgery took over six hours, and the surgeon had to sever my vocal cord because the tumor was wrapped around it. He warned me that I might not speak again, but I still had a voice. They also removed 45 lymph nodes.  

After recovery, I received external beam radiation therapy, which directs a beam of radiation from outside the body at the cancerous tissue inside the body. The doctor suggested placing a feeding tube just in case I had side effects from treatment. But I really did not want a feeding tube, so the doctor agreed to let me start treatment without one.

It was clear after the first session that the treatment was going to cause me side effects. Supportive care helped with a large lump that resulted from the radiation. My skin started to break down, and I had lymphedema in my neck. I worked with physical therapists who tried different techniques, including myofascial release and tuning forks.

I made it through the seven weeks of treatment, but when the radiation ended, I got worse. At the beginning of October, I needed a feeding tube because I couldn’t swallow and I was constantly vomiting. The feeding tube provided me important sustaining nutrition.

Then I lost my voice. You don’t realize how important your voice is to independence. I had to communicate through text and email because I couldn’t speak. I was not doing well emotionally during this time because I felt I lost my ability to socialize with family and friends.

A new voice

Finally, in June 2014, I was at CTCA for a follow-up appointment, and the doctor offered an option to restore my voice. Laryngoplasty injection is a procedure that provides support to a vocal cord. Under general anesthesia, the doctor injected filler into my paralyzed vocal cord. It worked! I’ve only had one injection, and for the nearly three years since, I have been able to talk.  

My voice today isn’t my original voice, but I have a voice. The difference is that my vocal tone is lower. I can’t yell or sing in higher tones, and I can’t talk for a long period of time. But after 10 months without being able to talk, I am so happy to speak again!

I look forward to attending an event at CTCA called Celebrate Life®, for five-year cancer survivors who have treated at CTCA hospitals. I will be attending it in 2017 with my family and my dad, as we celebrate life together.

I got through cancer treatment with the support of my family and friends. CTCA became a second family to me—all the patients, caregivers, doctors and clinicians I met there. They say it takes a village to raise kids. Well, it takes an army to fight cancer. You can’t do it alone. It is a battle on every front. You need to have all available weapons along with soldiers supporting you. My faith was tested, but I came out stronger. God fought for me when I couldn’t.

Because of CTCA, I feel like I have a second chance at life.

* Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA) is now City of Hope®, working together to expand patient access to personalized, comprehensive cancer care. Because this patient testimonial was written and published before CTCA® and City of Hope joined forces, mentions of legacy CTCA locations have not been updated in the interest of maintaining the patient’s original voice and story details.