"I'm proud to say that I'm a cancer survivor. I'm here and I can describe the scar on my neck for you," says Corazon Rico, a 38-year-old mother of three boys, who has successfully beaten thyroid cancer.
In January 2005, Rico was diagnosed with thyroid cancer — a condition that accounts for about one percent of all cancers in the United States and is the seventh most common cancer in women.
Two years earlier, Rico had noticed small lumps in her neck, though her first doctor believed that they were just inflamed lymph nodes and not a cause for worry. But when the lumps persisted, Rico visited another local doctor, who performed an ultrasound examination of her thyroid along with a biopsy, which revealed that the lumps were cancerous.
"I was shocked and scared and just couldn't think," says Rico, who, like the majority of people diagnosed with thyroid cancer, had not experienced any other symptoms, except for the lumps in her neck. "I don't remember asking the doctor anything. I was just told that I had to have surgery and I didn't know what to do but follow that advice."
Although Rico was nervous about having surgery, she was scheduled for a total thyroidectomy — a procedure to remove her entire thyroid, which is the most common operation recommended for her condition. However, the day of surgery, Rico became ill and her surgery was postponed.
"It was a strange blessing that I got sick and couldn't have surgery that day. It finally gave me time to really think about my diagnosis and to see if there were other treatment options available," says Rico.
Following the advice of her sister-in-law, who is a nurse, Rico visited renowned head and neck surgeon, Dr. Lisa Orloff at UCSF Medical Center for a second opinion. Orloff specializes in caring for patients with thyroid and parathyroid diseases. She also is an expert in endoscopic, minimally invasive, open and microscopic head and neck surgery, as well as neck ultrasonography.
During Rico's first visit, Orloff performed an advanced ultrasound imaging technique to examine not only Rico's thyroid gland, but also surrounding lymph nodes. "Most thyroid ultrasound examinations focus purely on the thyroid gland itself," says Orloff. "But in the setting of thyroid cancer, it is critical that the surrounding lymph nodes in the neck are also evaluated by ultrasonography. It is an extremely valuable tool for the office-based evaluation, and also for intra-operative evaluation and thyroid and other head and neck tumors."
Orloff discovered that Rico's cancer was not only in her thyroid gland, but also had spread to the lymph nodes in her neck. Therefore, she recommended a total thyroidectomy, along with the removal of Rico's affected lymph nodes.
"I still had to have surgery, but I felt more comfortable at UCSF because everyone who took care of me there was amazing," says Rico, who was hospitalized at UCSF Mt. Zion Medical Center after her surgery. "Dr. Orloff is a hero — she showed so much compassion, she cared and most of all, she made me feel like I had nothing to worry about because I was in good hands."
As a mother with little free time to spare, Rico also appreciated the "one-stop" care available at the UCSF Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center. Instead of having to visit different locations for tests and wait between results, Rico said that all aspects of her care were addressed in one place and information and answers were available to her right away.
Now, Rico, who is cancer-free, is feeling great, enjoying her hobbies of painting and home decor, and gearing up to start a cosmetology course. "If you find out that you have cancer, just don't stop there," she advises. "Find out about your condition, know your doctors, find the best hospital and dont be afraid to explore your options, ask questions and get answers."
Story written in November 2006.
Abby Sinnott is a freelance writer in San Francisco.