IN THEIR WORDS

Andy Waplinger

Thyroid Cancer at 17

Growing up, I wasn’t someone who necessarily lived unhealthily, but I had been overweight for all of my life. I had accepted it as just the way things were. Over the years my mother had brought up my weight and growth to my doctors and even suggested it may have something to do with my thyroid, but every doctor passed it off as me being a growing boy who needed to exercise more.

When I was 17, I started to have some pain when I swallowed. Whenever I looked in the mirror I also noticed that the lymph nodes in my neck seemed to be bigger than usual. I knew this was common with strep throat so I figured it would go away on its own, but it never did.

A few weeks later I was at the chiropractor and while I was lying on my back getting adjusted my mom noticed that I had a lump in my neck.  She said it looked like I had a second, smaller Adam’s apple to the right of my actual Adam’s apple. Since the “strep throat” still hadn’t cleared up, we scheduled a doctor’s appointment to figure out what was really going on.

My primary care doctor examined me and although he could feel a lump on my throat, he wasn’t sure what it was. He referred me to an ear, nose, and throat doctor (otherwise known as an ENT), but the exam by the ENT was inconclusive, too. Even though it was frustrating, I kept pushing for more definitive answers because I knew that this lump definitely wasn’t normal. I was extremely fortunate that I had my mom advocating for me, too.

We asked for more tests, leading to an ultrasound, CAT scan, and biopsy –none of which yielded any results. The surgeon that performed my biopsy told us the only option left was exploratory surgery. They knew there was a mass growing in my neck, but it wasn’t until after the surgery that we knew what it was or how big it was. It turns out that I had a 4 inch-long, non-cancerous mass with a grape-sized cancerous tumor attached to it. This tumor was sitting on the right lobe of my thyroid- confirming that I had thyroid cancer. My doctors moved quickly, and in just a few weeks I began my treatment, which included several surgeries and radioactive iodine treatment over the course of a year.

One of the most important things I learned from my situation is that as soon as you know that what you’re dealing with is out of the norm, find the doctor that is right for you.  In my case, we opted to see doctors that were local until a year after my second surgery when we discovered that the cancer was still present. Having a doctor who we felt comfortable with was important, so I decided to go to Johns Hopkins, which was only 45 minutes away.  At Johns Hopkins I was lucky enough to have some of the best doctors in the country who specialize in endocrinology and neck surgery.

It took three surgeries, one radioactive iodine treatment, and monthly blood testing throughout three years before I was cancer-free and on a clear path to a healthy life. One of the results of my health scare was the understanding that I needed to proactively take my health into my own hands. At my heaviest, I tipped the scales at 300lbs. With a combination of diet, exercise, and properly regulated hormones, I’ve lost over 100lbs. I’m still on my health journey and am constantly learning, adapting, and progressing. Through this process I’ve also learned that if something about your body doesn’t seem right, do your best to exhaust your options for answers – don’t just make excuses and hope your problems go away. If my parents and I had done this when I was younger, perhaps my cancer could have been discovered sooner.

"I’m still on my health journey and am constantly learning, adapting, and progressing."

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