How do you find out you have cancer (and how I discovered mine)

We’ve all done it. We’ve felt unwell, then we’ve tried to structure all the symptoms we were feeling. When you put it on Google, results were: cancer. Or pregnancy.

Even though Google rarely gives you a reliable diagnose and we all know we have to stop doing it, we don’t. I know it, I still do it.

2.5 million people in the United Kingdom live with cancer, or 400,000 more people in the past five years. 42% of them have preventive kinds of cancer… meaning that they could’ve avoided it, or at least discovered it in an early stage. Here comes my highlight.

Because I’ll start by disappointing most of you again: I didn’t feel ill, or pain, or anything. In fact, I found out about my tumor through a very boring routine check. If there is something I want you to get out of this post (and I’ll say it straight away), it is: do your routine checks.

A quarter of cancer cases in England are diagnosed following a routine or urgent GP referral, which was my case. Those are not classified under the ‘two-week wait’ referral route, which seems to be the most common timeline, for 34% of people.

It also depends on the type of cancer you have, of course

Back in May last year I had the mumps. It was so silly, but so scaring: suddenly I woke up and my face was huge. It got a little bit better when I had breakfast and walked around the house, but when I tried to go to work my swollen face was hurting a lot.

I tried to go to a walk-in clinic but they wouldn’t see me. They asked me if I had tooth ache (c’mon… ) and sent me home.

That’s when I decided to go to the A&E, and after 10 hours waiting (and seen by at least four doctors and a couple of blood tests), they diagnosed me with mumps and asked me to come back there one week later, to get a neck and face scan. The reason for the follow up was simply routine and, most importantly, to help them teach junior doctors – it was the amazingly great King’s College Hospital, at Denmark Hill.

In this neck scan… boom. Completely unrelated to the mumps, there it was, a 3.8cm tumor on my neck, surprisingly big. The senior doctor even showed to be how I could easily feel it and even see it by touching my neck while bending my head back a  little.

Thyroid cancer is also usually detected after routine blood tests, if your hormones are unbalanced. In my case, they were not. Meaning that the only way it could be found were by scans.

1280px-papillary_thyroid_carcinoma_tall_cell_var_high_mag
Papillary thyroid cancer. It looks prettier in abstract cell images than in real life.

That’s the most shocking part of the story. I try to eat healthy, I exercise often, even though I’m not a fitness-kind of person. I was feeling great, I rarely get ill, I get a cold like once in every two years. My hormones were absolutely fine. Nothing seemed to be wrong. Yet, I had a golf ball in my neck, growing uncontrollably. Dammit.

To be honest, if only go to the doctor in case of an emergency and end up finding out the bad news, data shows you a more difficult scenario. 21% of cancer cases are diagnosed after emergencies, and 71% of them are in more developed stages (III or IV).

See? DO YOUR ROUTINE CHECKS. If the bad news come, they’re very likely to be more manageable than an emergency situation.

But how do you find out if a tumor is cancer or benign?

This is where different kinds of cancer have similarities. You need to analyse the tumor cells in order to determine if they’re cancer or just a random tumor that will cause no harm to your body, or a benign tumor.

But if you did a screening and found a lump, do not panic. Only 6% of cancers are found out by screenings, and almost 9 out of 10 in those cases are very early stage cancer (I or II).

In the case of thyroid tumors, you’ll get a puncture to get a better idea of the cells growing in a tumor. In other routine checks it happens in the current check – that’s the case of smear tests, for example, and analysis of cervical cancer. If they find anything suspicious, they remove some cells and analyse them.

In my case, I also got it on the same day they did scans: the doctors use a needle to pinch the tumor through your neck and aspire some cells, which are taken to the lab to get a biopsy. “Eww, that’s gruesome”, you might think. Yes, it is! But it isn’t painful, just a little uncomfortable.

Normally, the biopsy results can reveal if you have cancer or not. There are different kinds of results, and mine were… inconclusive.

When you have a tumor, you want answers. But the answers take way longer than a Google result to show up. 

When I had a chat with the doctor, who explained to me in detail what the number in my biopsy meant, I completely understood him. Still, a couple of hours later, there I was googling the results at work. I read so many scientific articles on Scholar Google about percentages and risk, not to mention different approaches to tumors and thyroid oscillations.

It did help me to get more informed about Thyroid functions, tumors, levels, how they develop, how they test patients… But I like reading, and I really like medical documentaries and TV shows. I find it fascinating that we’re able to study the human body at this level. You might find it boring, or end up in clic bait websites that don’t help in anything.

The truth is: trust your doctor. If you don’t ask for a second opinion, from a doctor.

I had to trust the doctors when they recommended the first surgery to remove the tumor and half of my thyroid, even though it wasn’t affecting my thyroid levels or anything like that. That was the only way they’d know, for sure, if the tumor was cancer or not.

It took six months between the first scan and the diagnose. 

After one surgery, I was pretty confident my tumor was just an unwanted bunch of cells. But we found out it was a little cancer, with 1.7mm, growing encapsulated. Benign cells were surrounding my tumor, therefore they couldn’t tell for sure in the puncture about my cancer. Both kinds of cells were mixed up.

When you get the bad news, you’ve thought about all the possibilities. The main important thing, for me, was: I will never miss a routine check appointment. Taking care of yourself is the most important thing you can do, and if you discover something, it’s better to find it when it’s there, unnoticed, so you can tackle it and bother it before it starts hurting you.

Tomorrow I’ll get the results of my scans and blood tests, after going through two surgeries and radioactive iodine therapy, which I will write about in a later opportunity. I’m hoping for the good news, and either way, I know I will have to go through some other checks in 9 months to keep scanning my body for tumors. It is going to be super annoying, I’ll have to follow a low iodine diet again, but you know what?

I’d rather do this before it does me.

Stats compiled by CancerResearch.Uk 

Are you going through Thyroid Cancer, tumor-related diagnose, are you living in the U.K. but your family is elsewhere, or is it someone you love, do you want to chat? Drop me a line in the comments, it doesn’t get published before moderation so we can chat. 

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