For Baldwin resident Abby Melendez, September is far from an ordinary month — it’s a vivid reminder of the disease she had and how she had to overcome it.
September is Thyroid Cancer Awareness Month, which floods her with memories of when she was diagnosed with the disease in 1998. Although the 74 percent survival rate of thyroid cancer is higher than most cancers, Melendez noted that she didn’t have an easy journey to remission.
As she approaches her 25th anniversary since being diagnosed with thyroid cancer, Melendez is doing everything she can to make those with the disease feel supported and heard.
“When I was diagnosed, I was just shocked,” Melendez said. “And I needed support.”
Her surgeon recommended that she reach out to an email address where she could share whatever was on her mind. As part of that email chain, someone reached out to her and told her about a group called Thyroid Cancer Survivors Association, ThyCa, which was launched two years before Melendez was diagnosed with the disease.
In 1999, Melendez attended the first ThyCa conference in Boston, where she spoke to one of the founders of the group, who encouraged Melendez to start her own extension of ThyCa. After getting permission to run the support group through North Shore University Hospital, Melendez started ThyCa Long Island.
“I’ve learned that there is nothing wrong with advocating for yourself,” Melendez said after being asked what she has learned through running this support group. “It’s healthy to advocate for yourself. Knowledge is power.”
Melendez stressed that the characterization of thyroid cancer as the “good cancer” is “not always the case with everyone.” That was not the case with Melendez, because she had to go through several doctors before finding the right fit for her. She added that just because the survival rate of thyroid cancer is much higher than other cancers, it doesn’t mean that people still don’t struggle with the disease.
“As a teacher, I was teaching elementary school-aged kids, and I got sick a lot and kept getting respiratory infections,” Melendez said. “So my primary doctor said, ‘Abby, I think you have allergy induced asthma. Go see an allergist.’ So I went to see the allergist and before the man even walked into the room, he was standing in the doorway, and he said, ‘The right lobe of your thyroid is enlarged.’”
As a result, Melendez had a radioactive iodine uptake scan performed on her. The thyroid is the only organ in the body that should absorb iodine so doing this test would show if something was wrong with the thyroid. The test revealed that the right lobe did not absorb the iodine.
“I went to a surgeon and they said, ‘Abby we can watch it. It is starting to impinge on your trachea,’” Melendez recalled. “And I was like, that doesn’t sound good. I’m a teacher and I need to talk.”
Melendez then underwent a partial thyroidectomy, in which the right side of her thyroid was removed. The part that was removed did not indicate that this was malignant and two and a half weeks later, Melendez was diagnosed with cancer. To make sure she had all the cancer removed, Melendez went on to get the whole left side of the thyroid removed.
“I never regretted doing that because I am the type of person where I would have waited for the other shoe to drop, and it just would have made me nervous,” Melendez said.
After the surgery, Melendez received radioactive iodine treatment.
“I was in the hospital and a technician was wearing a lead apron and they give you this lead cup with tongs and they say, ‘Here, swallow this,’” Melendez said.
Melendez spent two and half days in the hospital until she didn’t have any more radiation. She made sure to stay away from her husband and kids for at least 10 days, just to be sure that she wouldn’t pass on any radiation to them. After the long journey she endured, Melendez said she wanted to help other people.
Melendez recommended for people to get screenings and urged them not to be afraid of them. She added that people should stay on top of what local legislators are doing in terms of cancer prevention.
“If you know your body and some things are not right, go find a doctor,” Melendez said.