I advocated for my health. Here’s how.

By Becca Ginns

It was January 2015 and I had just moved to Washington, D.C. I was 27 years old and had just started at a new job when I began suffering from extreme fatigue, sleeping 16 hours and still waking up tired every morning. I didn’t know my symptoms could be cancer.

Aside from the fatigue, I was cold all the time, even when others weren’t. So cold that I wrapped myself in blankets at work. I was gaining weight even though I was barely eating, and my skin would not stop breaking out (and as someone who had never had acne before, I was puzzled).

Left: Three days before my surgery. This was one of the warning signs that led me to the doctor. Right: One year later, this is the faint scar that was left post-surgery.

I knew something wasn’t right, so I went to the doctor to talk about my symptoms. The doctor said I just needed to exercise more in order to lose weight. They also said it’d help with the fatigue. (But as I could barely get out of bed in the morning, I didn’t know how I was going to make that happen.) They ordered bloodwork and an ultrasound to rule out ovarian cysts, but I never heard back with the results. I ended up getting in touch with the lab company to learn my bloodwork was deemed within normal range. To help with the acne, I was prescribed an antibiotic, but it landed me in the emergency room after having heart palpitations and fainting at home. I was prescribed corticosteroids that made my thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) level shoot up, which signals an underactive thyroid.

A nurse practitioner at a new practice ordered more bloodwork and found out that my TSH level never came back down when I came off the steroids. My TSH level should have gone back down, so I was referred to an endocrinologist. He examined my neck, and when I asked if it was supposed to hurt, I was concerned to hear the answer was no.

One neck ultrasound and a thyroid/lymph node biopsy later, I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer and Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, an autoimmune disease when your body makes antibodies that attack the cells in your thyroid. Not once did I think all the issues I was having could be attributed to a cancer diagnosis.

The treatment path was clear. I was going to have my thyroid removed (total thyroidectomy), undergo a radioactive iodine treatment to destroy any thyroid tissue that was not removed during surgery and complete full body scans. After the surgery, where they also took out some lymph nodes just to make sure the cancer hadn’t metastasized, I found out that it was stage 1 papillary thyroid carcinoma—in other words, I had caught it early. One year later, I completed the radioactive iodine treatment and full body scan again, where I was deemed cancer-free. I have remained cancer-free for six years.

With Kyra and Jennifer, two of my Prevent Cancer Foundation colleagues, at the Prevent Cancer Annual Gala in September 2022.

This experience taught me a lot, and I hope it can teach you something, too:

Advocate for yourself: You know your body better than anyone else. My experience with the first doctor was very disappointing, but I knew the issue wasn’t a lack of exercise and continued to seek answers.

It’s on the rise: Thyroid cancer is the fastest growing cancer in women. Learn more about thyroid cancer.

Family history: Thyroid disease is often hereditary. The more family members that have thyroid disease, the greater the likelihood that there is a hereditary root and the higher the chances the patient will experience a thyroid problem. It’s important to know your family history—get started today.

Symptoms: Most thyroid cancers don’t cause any signs or symptoms early in the disease, but there are also thyroid disease symptoms to look out for as a precursor:

  • Weight gain
  • Tiredness
  • Hair loss
  • Low tolerance for cold temperatures
  • Irregular menstrual periods
  • Constipation

As thyroid cancer grows, it may cause:

  • A lump (nodule) that can be felt through the skin on your neck
  • Changes to your voice, including increasing hoarseness
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Swollen lymph nodes in your neck
  • Pain in your neck and throat

You are the best advocate for yourself! Never forget that. Pay attention to your body, alert your health care providers to any changes, and when necessary, push to find the answers you need.