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Judy, a registered nurse at Yale-New Haven Hospital, wasn’t entirely shocked when she was diagnosed with papillary thyroid cancer in late October. Having worked at Yale since 1982 and as a nurse since 1976, she has cared for hundreds of cancer patients over the years; she understands first hand that cancer can happen to anyone.
While at her desk on a phone call, Judy was resting her hand across her neck when she felt a lump. After talking with a nurse practitioner in the office, she made an appointment with her doctor for the next day to have it checked. They performed an ultrasound and completed a biopsy that day. No other symptoms alerted Judy to the fact that there may be something wrong. A week later she received the results that it was in fact thyroid cancer.
The biopsy indicated that the tumor had not spread to her lymph nodes and she immediately made an appointment with Dr. Robert Udelsman, Chairman of the Department of Surgery at Yale School of Medicine. She also made an appointment with Dr. Elizabeth Holt, Assistant Professor of Internal Medicine in Endocrinology. “From what I had researched I knew that papillary thyroid cancer was one of the more easily treated types. It was slow-growing, and I am lucky that it was caught early, before it had time to spread,” Judy said.
Dr. Udelsman commented that thyroid nodules are common, and are detected in 15% of women in the United States. However, most of them turn out to be benign. The important thing is to discriminate between the benign nodules that are simply watched and followed, and malignant ones that are likely, or proven, to be cancerous.
“We have a true multidisciplinary approach to the treatment of thyroid cancer, and that’s exactly what Yale Cancer Center does so well. There are an array of individuals and procedures to offer patients with cases that range from straightforward, to the world’s most complex case,” Dr. Udelsman explained. “The surgical nursing staff also plays a huge role in this process, and is essential to optimizing patient care.”
In Judy’s role as an RN in the Department of Diagnostic Radiology at Yale, she sees with many patients, including those with cancer. She provides care while monitoring patient safety, and minimizing pain during interventional radiology procedures. Judy had an understanding before her own experience with cancer of what patients go through and how difficult a diagnosis of cancer can be. Having this knowledge did not cause her fear, however, but instead gave her hope and inspiration.
“I have seen patients with thyroid cancer over the years do well, and that gave me hope that I would do well too. The way in which I have seen some patients handle what they are going through is inspirational to me. Many patients deal with diagnoses more complex than what I am dealing with, and they are still able to take it in stride and have a positive attitude,” Judy said. “I am not sure where their strength comes from, but it gave me encouragement for my own battle.”
Surgery was Judy’s primary method of treatment. Her thyroid gland was removed, along with associated lymph nodes. There are side effects that can occur after a surgical procedure such as Judy’s, but she was very comfortable having Dr. Udelsman be the one to perform her surgery.
“The more experienced and skillful your surgeon is, the less chance there is for adverse effects. It was important to me to have a skilled surgeon like Dr. Udelsman performing my surgery,” Judy said. “Patricia Donovan, his clinical coordinator, was extremely helpful too. She was always accessible and it was great to have her to communicate with whenever I had questions.”
Dr. Udelsman explained that Judy presented in a very typical way for papillary thyroid cancer, and her excellent prognosis is typical as well. Judy will receive a dose of radioactive iodine treatment as follow-up to her surgery, and will continue to be monitored by Dr. Holt.
“It’s hard to know how you will react when you are faced with a situation like this, but I wanted to set a good example for my kids and tried to deal with everything as it came,” Judy said. “It was important that I not let myself fall apart, but follow the example of the patients I see bravely continuing their fight every day.”